When I was little girl I used to run in the open fields – my unruly curly hair streaming out behind me as the wind caressed each strand. I would stretch my arms out as wide as they could go and laugh at the world before me. Carpets of fluorescent yellow, green and brown spread out as far as the eye could see as I imperiously surveyed my kingdom. I would smooth back my curls, place my hands on my hips, lift my chin up in defiance and throw my shoulders back as I stood on top of my favourite hill. I would then close my eyes and feel a wave of delirium wash over me as I breathed in the fresh mountainous air. I remember feeling so happy that I thought I’d explode! I would lift my face to the sun, feels its warmth kiss me and whirl around like a dervish without a care in the world.
It’s been many years since I raced to the top of my hill – I’m not sure if it even exists anymore. My life gurgled, ebbed and floated me downstream to another world where there were no hills to run up. I left behind my mother, my father, my brothers and my crown in my small village surrounded by yellow fields and drifted to a land where everything was grey. I arrived with half of my face modestly covered with a beige chunni and stood behind the man who would now commandeer my journey.
Before I left, my Mama and aunties took it upon themselves to turn me into a ‘respectable’ young woman. My curls were slicked down with jasmine oil and pulled back into a tight low bun which hurt every time I turned my neck. My almond shaped eyes were lined with black kohl, which stung and burnt. My face, neck and arms were slathered in a thick turmeric paste and my breasts were flattened as two of my aunties squeezed me into a red blouse. I remember the exchanged looks of admiration and the gasps at my transformation from an unruly child to an elegant young woman. When I looked at myself in the mirror, it felt like a stranger was staring back at me.
But it wasn’t all bad – I had been lucky that my husband never hit me or shouted at me and had come from a relatively liberal family. That was until I gave birth to two girls – it took him a very long time to accept it. I remember the look of white-hot anger that his mother gave me, the way he lowered his head and quietly shuffled out of the hospital ward. It broke my heart to see my husband so deflated; when I called my aunty she said that I had done a terrible thing. That was the last time I ever spoke to her. When we came home, he consigned himself to his room and only came down for meals or to go to work.
This was how it was for a few years; we lived in a small world of three women who comforted, loved and nurtured each other. As my girls grew older, I saw glimpses of the same unruly child with wild curls in their faces and felt a sense of relief. I wanted them to feel the same wave of delirium that I felt on the top of my hill. I wanted them to feel like the brave queens, whose stories I had grown up listening to. But I painfully realised that times had changed. Queens were not revered in the same way; they would never be able to run through fields, stand atop of hills and whirl around carelessly like I did.