Celebrating East African Writing!
By Claudette Oduor
On the window ledge where glass separated two kinds of night, I watched the two nights. The first night cried out loud, distressed because it could not see the vast horizons where it had buried its treasures. It is too dark, the night wailed. But the stupid night forgot that it was it that brought in the darkness. It looked in the mirror and cursed the folly of its freckled face, forgetting that each freckle was a twinkling star. It cried because a one-eyed monster nestled in its crevices, forgetting that the one-eyed monster was the moon that lit the night’s night.
Inside the window ledge, wherein I stood, the second night thought itself more superior to the night outside. It was proud because it was warm and well-fed, charged with the important duty of keeping secrets and inventing dreams. It patronised the night outside forgetting that it was worse off. It was a caged night, a tamed useless night that would die if let out in the wild.
Below, twenty feet from the perimeter wall, I saw a cargo train chug itself into the dark horizon. I envied it. It wouldn’t be alone the next day, not on Diwali. It would be going back home, to the other trains. And if not, at least the coaches were there for each other.
Although the house was teeming with people, I had never felt more alone in my life. Mami and the aunts had thrown me a wedding party. They called in caterers, pitched tents on the lawn outside, invited Big Men. The guests laughed and danced and made merry. Glasses tinkled, champagne flowed, and gifts were piled against a living room wall.
For a long while, I watched from the bedroom window. I thought my heart would bleed to death and my thoughts would all tumble out of my brain if I continued to look. It was my party, yet I felt like an outsider, a fly on the wall. I saw Nishit Patel’s Papa and Mami; new family. Nishit Patel’s sister and I would be married in a few hours.
Nishit Patel’s sister was wiry and long, as though she had eaten too much spaghetti as a child. The uncles said that she combed her hair so straight that if you came close to her, you could hear static crackling from her sari. Papa said that Nishit Patel’s sister had paranoid body parts; she skulked about her feet, and her large bulging eyes made nervous sweeps across rooms, seemingly staring into unseen people’s eyes.
But Nishit Patel’s sister was Hindu. It was the prudent thing for our papas to do; to arrange our marriage to each other. Papa wasn’t as stringently conservative as Mami, though. The wedding and everything was Mami’s doing. Papa had had the decency to ask me what I thought about Nishit Patel’s sister.
“I don’t think anything, Papa,” I’d replied.
“And about that black girl, what do you think?”
“Everything, Everything, Papa.”
And that was that. Papa hadn’t pushed me towards Nishit Patel’s sister. He’d sympathised with me over Mami’s insistence that I marry Nishit Patel’s sister. Papa had even begun to ask me to bring Namunyak to the house.
Mami and the aunts were outraged. At first they hadn’t liked Namunyak because she did not own a sari. When I bought Namunyak a choli, sari, and salwar kameej, they didn’t like her because I placed a red bindi on her forehead. Red bindis were traditionally for married women. Not only was I marking my territory but also dropping hints for Mami and the aunts.
They ran into panic when they saw the bindi, realized what I was trying to tell them.
“She can’t cook an Indian meal,” was their next arsenal. But neither could Nishit Patel’s sister.
Namunyak soon learnt to cook, though. During Diwali two years before, it had been Namunyak that made the chicken tandoori, naan, dal, bhindi masala, gajar ka halwa and samosas, among other delicacies. When they saw she could cook a mean Indian meal, Mami and the aunts tore their hair in distress. They said that only an educated girl like Nishit Patel’s sister deserved me. This made Papa and the uncles laugh because while Nishit Patel’s sister had only reached form four, Namunyak had just been admitted to the bar and signed her name in the roll of advocates.
“Why do you hang onto her like a leech?” the aunts asked. “You had a silly school boy crush on her in high school. Now you’re a trained doctor, you need to think of settling down. A good Hindu boy like you marries a good Hindu girl like Nishit Patel’s sister. No blacks, whites or Muslims.”
“But I love her,” I replied.
“Love is a rusted nail,” Mami warned. “When it tears your skin, it pretends to be just any other nail; harmless, drawing a few impotent coppery dribbles of blood on your cuffs. But love is not just any other nail. It is a rusted nail; blunt and doesn’t know to tear your skin neatly. It jars, raggedly pulling apart skin and spilling out innards. And as though that is not enough, it injects your blood with a deadly substance. Your body jerks, becomes brittle. Love then begins a cruel game. It bends the parts to see how far it can push two ends. When the ends snap, love steps away.”
Just like that, they eclectically shunned my Maasai princess.
Namunyak had fertile child bearing hips, an elegant little waist, a bountiful bust. Her lips were almost exaggeratedly luscious, as though if you bit them, sweet raspberry juice would ooze out of them. She stood five feet tall, and as dark as the night sky. Such beauty, I wished I could pack it up, like those exquisite ships in bottles, and keep it someplace where I could discover new breeds of it when I turned it in the light. And like the ships that fascinated and intrigued one by their encapsulation inside bottlenecks, Namunyak fascinated and intrigued me by her encapsulation in my heart. She was deeply ensconced there, firmly, irrevocably.
I’d loved her secretly in Nakuru Primary, a little less secretly in Menengai High School, and now scandalously unsecretly in Nakuru town.
The aunts made me choose. They said that if I loved Mami and Papa, I would marry Nishit Patel’s sister, and that if I chose Namunyak over my family, I was never to set foot again in the house I’d been born in.
From the upstairs window, I saw Mami tip her head merrily to the drunken bhangra. She was so happy. As though she would be the one to marry Nishit Patel’s sister in the morning. As though she would squeeze some of that happiness in a glass and give it to me thrice a day, like medicine, to help me feel more tolerably towards Nishit Patel’s sister.
I stared away from the dancing guests, up into the velvety ink of sky above me. The satin curtains billowed in and out of the windows, a gentle caress on my cheeks, like Namunyak’s silky cocoa butter skin. With the curtains came periodic gushes of stinging, snappy, gingery wind. It nudged me, that wind, its incessant blowing bringing forth memories of musky newspaper cuttings with stories of nagging wives. I looked down at Nishit Patel’s sister, heard her laugh ring sonorously like a school bell warning me not to enjoy my wedding party too much.
Closing my eyes, I let the sporadic frosty gush from the window wash over my face, bringing with it smells it had stolen from monsoons or borrowed from el ninos. There was butter and scotch somewhere, melted over a floundering wilderness fire in a boy scouts tin. There were sardines too, and someplace else, mangled wrecks of potent-smelling khat, a mixture of bourbon and garlic issuing from someone’s rusty teeth. And as I turned my head, I caught it. Her scent; Namunyak’s.
It was delicate, almost naively innocent, swaddled with the warmth of her supple skin. It straddled the wind, fluttering, folding in and out of it, in and out of it. There was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do. What I had to do.
I couldn’t let Mami arrange me. Clutching Papa’s old Granth Sahib, the sacred book, I stole away from my bedroom. The floorboards shuddered under my feet, as though revolted by what I was about to do. I pushed the oak door, crept down a dark hallway and left through a shadowy side door. I glanced back, not to have one last look at the house I would never return to, but to consider whether or not to pick my grey sweater from the laundry hamper. It was icy outside.
If I went back into the house, it would be icy inside for the rest of my life. It would rain everyday in my heart, and Nishit Patel’s sister would feed me iced tea and cold green gram sandwiches that were falling apart. She would hold a yardstick to my shoulders to make me sit straight at the kitchen table, and one day the static over her sari would set fire to the house.
I looked away from the house, graciously slid into the grand oblivion of my family’s history. In a few hours, Mami and the aunts would disown me. Papa and the uncles would act mad, for Mami’s benefit, but would be sneaking to my apartment so as to watch soccer and drink beer without Mami’s condescending glare.
I found Namunyak seated in the bathtub, fully dressed, fully drenched, crying.
“You married Nishit Patel’s sister, didn’t you?” she sobbed. “Love is an acquired taste. You turn it in your mouth, gargle. You should spit it out, like toothpaste. But you swallow it, and the taste grows on you. If you have too much of it, you get sick of the taste. But if you have too little of it, your teeth rust.”
“Pull yourself together, Namunyak,” I admonished, hurt that she had such little faith in me after everything we’d been through. I threw a towel around her, kissed her, brought her to the living room.
I placed the Granth Sahib on the marble coffee table. My bride’s gown was a wet towel, but it would have to do. Namunyak cried again as we did the Anand Kara; going round the sacred book four times. As soon as the fourth round was complete, the marriage was binding. She was fully mine, and although she didn’t know it yet, Mami had fully disowned me.
Now I wouldn’t be alone on Diwali. And at home, they held a wedding party for me. I placed a red bindi on my Maasai princess.
© Claudette Oduor 2010
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