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Portrait of My Youth

by Prashila Naik

I can’t remember the last time I let myself live through so much self-indulgence: studiously snubbing the gestures of the slightly handicapped man standing right next to the “Handicapped Only” seat I was occupying on the bus; having three glasses of falooda from a roadside stall and effortlessly looking past the urchin who was busy watching me with a desperate mixture of hope and longing spread across his shabby face; even pretending to be lost in my own thoughts, so that I could ignore the friendly greetings of my apartment doorman, simply because I did not want to smile back at him.

I don’t mind this digression at all, for this is precisely what I deemed myself incapable of doing, ever. But a year after my husband and son left me, I have managed to dig up so many graves in what I once construed to be a completely insulated and impeccable existence that I am no longer sure what my own personality really is.

It was probably one such digression and one such grave-digging that made me pick that book up from a Flora Fountain bookseller. It was the cover that first caught my eye: a young woman, her eyes lowered just enough to give away a hint of the thoughts she might be engrossed in. Her distracted fingers were busy knocking on something that looked like a door. The cloak around her shoulders lent her a gravitas far beyond her obvious youthfulness.

I was smitten by the woman, and an assumption that I would be smitten by her story seemed all too natural. It was only when I was on my way back home that I realized I had barely paid any attention to the book’s title or its author’s name, not that either of the two was important.

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I finally satiate my curiosity. I sit down in the rocking chair my husband purchased for me at the insistence of our son, who liked to call me the “best mother in the world.”

But when the judge asked him to choose which parent he would want to live with, when his parents were separating, he very promptly picked his father. The reasons were obvious to me: his father had the resources that would give him a better life, and his crazy mother was just an unremarkable music teacher prone to bouts of rage and depression.

And yet it’s hard not to feel a stab of pain every time I let my misshapen buttocks hit that chair. But this time, I don’t dwell on the pain. I have a woman whom I am about to meet, and her story, I am sure, will be far more interesting than my own.

I skip all the initial pages and the Introduction and directly get to the first chapter, which turns out to be in miserably small print and endlessly descriptive. If there are meant to be metaphors and allegories that need to be discovered, then I am woefully inadequate to do that.

I move onto the second chapter, only to be burdened with another set of verbose paragraphs that soon have my mind drifting away into a realm of nothingness. When I am abruptly brought back into the woman’s world, it takes me a while to realize that she is being persecuted for committing adultery, and the baby in her arms is a product of that very same adultery.

The bleakness of the entire situation is so unexpected that I quickly put the book down on the floor. The mysterious woman who had so fascinated me is nothing like the pathetic character that has just been introduced, and if I already know what will eventually happen to her, I don’t want to bother reading how she got to that point.

It is impossible to get that cover picture out of my head. The ease with which even the simplest of my expectations can get shattered terrifies me. I desperately reach out to light a cigarette, even though that nicotine-laced smoke is hardly as potent as it once used to be. I walk over to the window and push it open out of a force of habit inculcated only because my husband was allergic to cigarette smoke.

As I turn my head, I notice that the mantelpiece standing right next to the window has not been dusted in weeks. I experience a sudden wave of self-loathing. I gently move my hands over the length of that mahogany platform, which once hosted pictures of my little family in all its denominations: all three of us, each one of us individually, my husband and I, my husband and my son, my son and I. But now it is a sorry display of my own photographs, all chronicling my life, reminding me that I have managed to get through so many years and can only continue to do the same in all the years to come.

I have become far too well acquainted with each of the pictures to feel any nostalgia for them. Pausing to take short smoke breaks, I gently wipe the faint layer of dust off the pictures with my dupatta, occasionally putting my cigarette aside to blow some air over the ones that need a more thorough dusting.

One of the photos, the 23-year old me, smiling in the midst of the desert in Jaisalmer, stubbornly refuses to let itself be cleaned. The dust persists. Annoyed at this interruption in my steady rhythm, I stamp the cigarette butt under my slippered feet and turn my full attention to the photograph. It’s only after I have focused on it that I become aware of the slow and subtle transformation it is undergoing.

My hair was tied into a neat bun; now it is covered by an ugly-looking scarf, and my bee-stung lips have drastically thinned down. My eyes are no longer black but a shade of brown. My nose has changed, and so have my chin and cheekbones.

As I look at the picture carefully, I realize I looked much slimmer than I have ever been since, and also much prettier. Another wave of terror washes over me as I make that sudden connection. I am beginning to resemble the woman on the book’s cover.

I instantly put the photograph back on the mantle and, with my aimlessly shivering fingers, struggle to light another one of my cigarettes, all the while not daring to look in the direction of that mantlepiece. I finally manage to take a puff and decide to pack all those photographs and the novel into a plastic bag and hand it over to the watchman to dispose of in some garbage bin.

The cigarette still held between my lips, I quickly find an old polythene bag and walk up to the pictures, only to realize that each of my photographs has changed. None bears any resemblance to the woman I am. Instead they are chronicling the life of the woman on the book cover.

I hurriedly begin to dump all the photographs in the bag, but my actions are futile; for every photograph that I manage to put in it I somehow see another book coming back on the mantelpiece. I could spend my whole life playing this weird game and still not win it.

I put the bag down and walk into the kitchen to look for my hammer. I haven’t seen or used it in the last five years, and yet I know exactly where to find it. I walk up to the mantle and stop at the 15-year old me. I instantly bring the hammer down on her.

The glass crackles, but the photograph manages to slip out of the frame in a motion so swift and precise that I can only watch it with a terrified fascination. As the terror gives way to more terror, I lunge towards the picture and try to tear it apart. I fail miserably. I cannot even manage to put a crease in it.

Too terrified to search for any more solutions, I put the photograph down and begin to clear away the bits of broken glass. By the time I am done disposing of them, the photograph has slipped itself back into that glassless frame.

I let the photographs be and walk over to my rocking chair. The book is still lying on the floor, its back cover upwards. I pick it up on an impulse, and before I register that movement, I turn it around. The scream that lets itself out of my mouth is so loud that I can barely hear it, and yet I can only feel a vague form of relief for the change that has just occurred.

I open the book, desperately wanting a distraction, even if it means getting back into the world of the same adulteress who is now busy playing weird games with me. Could it be that she is displeased that I gave up on her story without letting myself read through it? After all, I wouldn’t have liked anyone doing the same to me.

I look at the mantelpiece and then look down at the book and open it. Chapter 1: The Prison Door. I read out loud, “ A throng of bearded men...”

Copyright © 2014 by Prashila Naik

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