Constellation of Scars is a novel-in-progress by Sharanya Manivannan. Parts of this excerpt have previously appeared in Ghoti Magazine and the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore.
CHAPTER 1: THUNDER
All my life I will remember this: my father wrote in languages he had never heard spoken. He smelt of whiskey and had what my mother called a ruthless flamenco heart. He disappeared. My mother went insane. When I was four, I recall a moment seated beside her at a dining table as she swallowed pills and alcohol together and told me how she had shot someone dead, running away from her father. “You were six months old. Do you remember?”
I didn’t remember. I fled the room. All our meals together ended like this. This was the year she came back, flipped my grandparents’ home on its head. Wandered the house, bare feet and wet hair, her animal aura, in the dead of the night. She swore like a drunk sailor with an injury and smoked in front of guests. I woke up night after night to the sound of her anklets on the stairs. Outside my door. And sometimes, the sound of her weeping.
It was her year of writing love songs to no one. The year her voice rose in anguished lullaby from the balcony of the room they moved her to once they saw how little I slept sharing mine with her. She was wild and beautiful and tender and vicious. Sometimes she couldn’t recognize me, gave me her laundry thinking I was a maid, or spoke to me like I was her mother. Sometimes she cracked sunflower seeds for me with her teeth and called me Kannamma.
One morning I came downstairs and my grandmother served me breakfast. Not my mother and not a maid. It was the first time she had done that, and that was how I understood that what had transpired the night before – the agonized sobbing, the sounds of falling and breaking – had not ended as they usually did. No one spoke of her for weeks, until one evening Appapa called me to his study and asked me if I knew what an asylum was.
For the next ten years, they raised me. Then Appapa was offered a position teaching politics at a university in Singapore. We went. The years stole by. I grew up, graduated. Both of them died within months of each other, when I was twenty. They left me everything. I finished the degree out of sheer guilt, and the day after I did, bought a 35mm SLR. I became someone’s apprentice, studying and working under her for two years. I didn’t need it. The journals I kept from age seven contained nothing but polaroids.
Then one day, out of the blue, my Elephant Ammama, my grandmother’s last surviving sister, called me from Batticaloa. She had heard from my mother, she said. She wouldn’t have called me, she said, had my grandparents been alive. Or had I still lived in Colombo. But what use for secrets did an old woman have, she asked. My mother had called her. My mother was ill. But all I heard, all the thunder in me, was only that my mother was alive, my mother had never really cut away the small circle I inhabited. My mother had called. My mother was alive. My mother was a person and not a place in my memory. All the thunder in me.
It’s been a year. I don’t know why I have waited. I cannot name my fear but I can taste it, its startling lucidity. Its heady, sore desperation, like the way it felt to cry as a child.
But the night Elephant Ammama called, I packed my things – a jacket, blankets, a brolly, my digital, shoes, a flaskful of gin and orange juice – and drove down to Pasir Ris. The overcast sky. The turbulent water like the turmoil in my mind. I drank and photographed till my batteries died, then crawled into the back of my car, the door open, and fell asleep next to the Burger King by the Costa Sands chalets at 4a.m. The next day I went to work and shot the magazine cover that won me my first small grant.
And since then, I come here on Thursday evenings and watch the night descend. Sit by the water for hours. Shoot. Wander. Some nights I wonder if it is my father’s flamenco heart that keeps me stalking his ghost all these years, or my mother’s inconsolable madness that fuels these long, crazed nights. My intoxicated passion. My impossible longing.
Tonight I wade into the water and get my black lace skirt wet till my thighs, my crochet poncho rising membranous on the water. Tonight I am empty on the inside. Why I dress this way for Pasir Ris even I don’t know. Only that I am more alive, more irreconcilably fractured, on these nights than I am, on any other day, any other night. The night slides into me and decants me, fills me with its own essence so that I am at once nobody and everybody. My mother’s surreal yearning and the fire of my father’s poetry. The fraught undercurrent of my grandmother’s patience and my grandfather’s temper like a summer-storm
I am the night with its constellation of scars.
The first time I went to Pasir Ris I was nineteen years old. My grandfather was in the hospital with the first of the pneumonia that, less than half a year later, would sneak the life out of him. All the years before then, all I knew of Ris was that it was the last station on the East-West line, a place you only really went to if you could catch a bus home from there. Or did not want to be found.
But there is one bus that takes passengers down to the pasir in Pasir Ris. The beach. Nobody actually goes to the beach, but students and families do go to the theme park next to it. Before I had a car, I would take the bus and walk down, past the marvellous canopy of trees that lead down to the shore. Only, I suppose to most it isn’t really a shore. An embarrassment of unkemptness and barrenness in this country of perfection. I have smiled at almost every person I have seen there during the day – there are so few, if any at all, usually cyclists in the park or poorer-district kids, and they all return that surprise-secret smile, forced to admit their delight in what my friend Juno calls the shittiest little crap of a beach in South East Asia.
During the night, there is no one else at all.
The first time I went to Ris, I went because of Nikhil.
He was the most beautiful and brutal thing I had ever known. The rainbow in an oil spill. Shimmering on the skin of things. He was brilliant and cold and vicious, sweet and richly sinister like Tia Maria straight from the bottle. I loved him endlessly. As much as I loved myself. As much as he had loved her.
They had grown up together, and the moment he told me it had been in Madras, the only Indian city I felt an affinity to, I felt as though they had stolen it from me. His words dropped a filter on everything I saw. That was how he had tinted West Mall for me, Buffalo Road, a particular church in Novena. But elsewhere, another country? Immediately, I knew I would never again know Madras empirically, or alone. A certain memory of climbing into a cycle-rickshaw because no auto would take me for a reasonable price, seeing the arterial streets of Sowcarpet hued in after-rain blue and stirred in petrichor, astonished at a rooster on a roof, was lost. As was a walk from the convent school on one end of the ridiculously long Anna Salai to Spencer Plaza in its middle. And every vethile bhaji bought on the street as evening fell the way it only falls in that part of the world, as sudden and striking as a skirt slipping to a woman’s thigh. So I did what I did. I stole his beach.
So this then, is how I began my own love story. On the remnants of another’s. I spent years wearing her clothes, sleeping in them. Sliding into her skin like I was trying on a disguise. She wasn’t mine; she was me.
But it is the truth that is strangest to say, the truth that is truest: he never told me about Ris. Not a word. Not once. But I saw that poem, a poem with two titles. The one he wanted to use but didn’t was the one that referenced Ris. He showed me both. He liked to lance me, now and then, a little bit. A poem with two titles for a woman who wasn’t me, whom I could never be. I was so full of lacerations I dripped any love poured into me, kept the stones, the insoluble stuff. So that was enough for me. I filled the silence with an epic of my own making. If love is only a question of how and what you choose to remember, I didn’t understand why he chose to remember her this way.
But this is also true: I had prevaricated around Ris for years. I knew and didn’t know and didn’t want to know and was desperate to know. It was never, at most, more than an hour away. So it was too near, too accessible, too loomingly available. Nothing at such proximity should be allocated such power. So I didn’t let it have any.
The truth? I don’t remember. I don’t really remember why I never went before. Or if I wanted to. If I dreaded to. If I was curious, or wasn’t. All I know is, one day I turned a corner onto Armenian Street (the one in Singapore, not in Madras) and saw them sharing an umbrella but standing in the shade, a small, gorgeous converted colonial house behind them. I knew her from a picture someone else had once shown me. They were standing close, the fabric of her long sable coat brushing his knees. She licked her lips almost continuously; his hands were in his pockets. Something snapped inside me. Appapa was in the hospital, at the outset of a battle for every breath he would ever again take. Ammama slept sitting upright on the chair they let her sit in his room in. I was home alone. He could have come over if he was careful, but I didn’t ask him. Appapa had been admitted five days before. I was disintegrating inside and I didn’t know why. Then I took a turn, saw them there and went home with all the blood in my body buzzing and couldn’t sleep and left the apartment at 6.30 in the morning, got on the train and didn’t get off until there was nowhere left to go.
Someone once told me that it doesn’t matter how long a room had been in darkness once a lamp is lit in it. That was how it was. He stepped inside and illuminated the world. Amrit entered from elsewhere, some place not realised until then, and with him he brought the light.
CHAPTER 2: DARKNESS AND LIGHT
There are no mutually exclusive chronological or geographical divisions. How we measure our histories reveals more about us than the paralysis of photographs. Thamarai thinks of this the day there is a fire in a shophouse down the street from her studio. They sell antiques, the kinds of things meant for aficionados, not average tourists. The owners are a husband-and-wife team well past retirement who had moved to Singapore from Goa as newlyweds. Juno loves the place, its old-people smell and its strange, melancholy ambience. They both go out onto the street, along with a model-actress with half her makeup on, the rest of her wrapped in a big robe. Thamarai reaches the street before she realises that her camera is with her, even though she had been doing the other woman’s make-up at the time they realised what was going on – she barely remembers running into another room to grab it before heading downstairs. She starts to zip its case open, but Juno places his hand over hers without a word and lets it drop only when he feels her loosen her own grip. The place is razed, although the fire is reasonably contained – only the antiques shop and the recently-emptied one to its right are scathed. It happens like that.
They end up standing out there for more than an hour. There is so much to see, so much to avoid, so much shock and delight in a fire like this. Everybody survives. The fire department does what it needs to do and somebody with a microphone tells everybody to go back to what they were doing. They go back to what they were doing, but the model is so shaken up they have to reschedule. Juno gets a headache and escapes for some coffee. Thamarai waits by one of the windows until she is sure she can go downstairs without being told to leave.
The street is clear. She walks straight up the road to the antiques shop, one hand cupped over her nose and mouth, the other fingering the camera slung around her torso. What she sees overwhelms her.
Nadine Alphonso, disobeying both orders and cordons, stands inside the skeleton of her shop. Everything around her is covered in cinders, and she is wearing black. It occurs to Thamarai that even shot in colour, the portrait before her would be black and white. She sees Thamarai and Thamarai sees that she does not see her. Nadine Alphonso had lived upstairs from their shop with her husband. Gingerly, she takes a step toward the older woman, who at that moment seems to snap awake, letting out a jagged breath. Before Thamarai knows it, Nadine is in her arms and Thamarai leads her out onto the street.
Thamarai understands that insurance will take care of the damage to the shop, but it’s the things. The things and the goddamn memories, as it always is in any situation where something – a heart, a home – goes up in flames. The wedding dress, probably. Trinkets and books. Nadine always seemed like the kind of woman who hoarded – but then, she ran an antiques shop. “What about pictures?” she asks. “Your children must have some of them, in their homes. Maybe you uploaded them on the Internet, emailed them?”
Nadine Alphonso blinks as though confused. “My dear… We never took any pictures.”
That night, Thamarai washes the ash out of her hair and watches as the dark water drains away. Mottled. Grey.
These are the ways I know my father.
When we first moved to Singapore and she realised that the only thing that would quell my raging homesickness was taking the MRT from Bukit Batok, where we lived, to Marina Bay, where I could sulk by the sea, my grandmother told me that my father had loved trains, that even at 32 – the age at which he died – he had never once driven a car, never learned how to. I understood instantly. He loved the slow rock of trains, their dull, sexual power, took them wherever he could. Took them when he had nothing else to do. Took them in furies, took them in moments where he sensed an overwhelming turn of fortunes. And it was then that I realised that I, too, loved trains. Still love them. Still catch my breath to think of the pleasure of them. So that now, I imagine his life as a track, a trajectory. Its points of significance. The darknessses and the lights. The breakdowns, and finally, the place at which the track disappears, runs underground like a river, or perhaps comes to an inexplicable end.
From him, I got the beat that my heart skips every single time I see the lights or the body itself of the train I have been waiting for, the love of the thrill of sound and speed in a rush-hour underground, the lull of calm that comes when I watch a country curve out its contours for me on a long-distance journey.
In India once, at 15, sullenly following my grandparents on some pilgrimage or another, my father startled me. We were in second-class, where some peon had mistakenly booked us into, with my grandparents grumbling already about the five hours ahead of us. It was ten in the morning, and we were pulling out of Bangalore Cantonment. Looking out of the window in those first few minutes of movement, those most enthralling of departures, I saw a suicide. A glimpse of him as we sped past, all of him – name, home, life, death, choice, despair – reduced to that single gasp that caught in my chest. His head lay severed, separated from the rest of what had been his body by the steel of track. He was bearded, his clothes those of a worker, an anonymous toiler of fields. His eyes – from what I could grasp in those few astonished seconds – were open.
I imagined him trudging down to the station that morning. What could the night before have been like for him? Did he stay awake, drinking? Did he lay down beside a wife, children, in a gesture of normalcy? What was he thinking as he lay himself down across those tracks and waited in the chill of early morning? He must have been so cold. That horn the last thing he must have heard. Did he close his eyes? Did he pray?
And in that moment, amidst the tactless chug-a-chug of our journey beginning, I thought I remembered something about my father. It was as though a piece of wallpaper had fallen off to reveal a different pattern beneath. I remembered his voice. I remembered him singing to my mother as he combed her hair, one drowsy afternoon. It fell in great coils onto his lap, and he lifted it section by section and disentangled each one, singing continuously. At one point she took his hand and kissed it, his fist full of her own hair. They had forgotten me. I was on the bed, supposedly asleep. It was only when all her hair had been combed, piled neatly atop her head and secured with pins – and even then only after ten minutes of him rocking her in his lap, her arms about his shoulders, their laughter and kisses – that they looked up to see me with my eyes open. Watching them. Their quiet, undemanding baby. The outsider in their love.
And so this is how I know my father. I know him in me. I know him when I relish liquor, when I flirt with women who have my grandmother’s cheekbones and my mother’s ass. I know him when I wait for trains. When I catch my breath at the sight of them.
I know him in the click of a camera shutter. I know him in the pendant I found on a beach that didn’t belong to me until I stole it. I know him the same way I know my mother and grandmother in the blood that seeps from my body each month, the bitter metallic taste of it. I know him in the anthems of nations with red in their flags. I know him in the word amygdala. I know him in the thunder of Chavela Vargas’ voice.
I know him in the only way I know how, the only way I know how to love.
I have thought often about why it is that images are my vocabulary. Where it is that we gather what we need to become who we are? What was it that I learnt, and when: that speech can kill, but the seditions committed in silence are somehow more negotiable?
Growing up, there were as many people who talked about my father as there were people who treated me as though I had fallen through the roof of my grandparents’ house and landed on their laps, spawn of the loins of no one, no sordid, shameful transgression. There are things people say in front of children in the faith that those things are either not understood, or forgotten by the time they begin to matter. And then there are the things they don’t say – the things that turn teenagers resentful, make adults wake breathless, their bones full of questions, in the dying night.
But it isn’t the fear of words that keeps me without them. There’s a reason why, in my personal capacity, I work only in black and white. Colours are beautiful, and irrelevant to how I say what I need to say. Words are flighty things. I clip them, pin them down in two tones and gradations thereof. I strip them. Colours are camouflage. Stripped, there is nowhere to hide. I feel in words and process these into pictures. My father wrote in Spanish. How he learnt it, who knows? How does a man speak a language he may have never known the intonations of? Ammama liked to say, when I was small, that he was a baila-dancing drunkard. Our baila is Portuguese. It doesn’t matter. What language did my father think in? I can’t imagine it being anything other than Tamil. But these thoughts emerged in three languages. Like my father’s pen, my camera is simply a tool of translation.
My father’s name was Amrit, which means immortality. My mother’s name was Subhadra, a name with a hard tone, like a fall. A name that requires the meeting of teeth to say. I am named, typically and meaninglessly, after a flower.
How many languages did he dream in? Or cry in?
There is another reason why I distill thought with vision.
What is immortality? In some Vedic texts there is no present tense. History seeps in without pause, stifling all possibility of erasure. What has been uttered cannot be unspoken, what has been removed cannot be replaced.
We grow up without realising it, until we are beyond all ability to undo, to keep, to move backwards in time.
And we cannot hold time in words.
He was godlike. In different guises, he was a horse-drawn chariot, a metaphor, the way tea blooms under water like an epiphany.
And like all gods, he was a monster, too.
I have this image of Amrit looking out into the Bay of Bengal the day before I was to meet him. He was striking from the first moment. He wore a dhoti and a long sleeved shirt, both white. His legs from the knee below jutted out from under. His hair was gathered at a knot at the nape, and above his lip was a thick, neat moustache. He was heart-stoppingly beautiful. I had the distinct impression, watching him stare into the horizon, that he was extricating obeisance from the water.
He had no idea who was watching him. He was, I think, in communion. At his wrist, a long red ribbon of cloth dangled. It dripped seawater when he cupped his palm under the tide, lifted it to his lips and tilted his head back. Desire slipped into me like a tongue in a slow kiss.
Within six months we would be married. Within two years he would be dead. This memory of him, of a man conducting the opera of a bay, riding his destiny as though he held its reins, should die with me, but it will die before me. When I die I will be a slate wiped clean, a wasteland with no roots entrenched in me. Chaste. Absolute.
She kept birds. She wore housecoats with slips under them and collected miniature elephants. When she entered a room it was like a white butterfly had come to land on black water.
After Amrit disappeared, after Iyya and Amma did what they had to do, after Subhadra fled to Padma Aunty’s and then fled from there, the house on Gregory’s Avenue took on a strange pallor. Two old people, a quiet child with a headful of curls and a kitchenful of servants couldn’t mute the awful hush, the kind of awful hush that resonated like a scream. They stepped over and sneaked around it like it was a dead body waiting for the police. Guests tripped over it constantly. They caught their breath and stilled their tongues. The house grew dim with it. Its inhabitants grew old and older. The child in it bloomed, but like blood flowering from a gash. As the years accrued, the house settled into a certain odd languor. Heavy with secret. Mournfully silent, like a house full of empty birdcages.