Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 86 (previously 29e) - At the Mouth by Gurmika Mann - transcript
(Originally aired 2018/12/29 - listen here)
Welcome to the fourth story in the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast original fiction series! I’ve been so happy with the response to the fiction series and I’ve been delighted to be able to do my part to put more lesbian historical fiction out into the world. As you already know if you’re a regular listener, I’ll be running a second fiction series in 2019. Submissions will be open for the month of January. Check out the link in the show notes if you think you have something we might be interested in.
Our author, Gurmika Mann, is a queer Punjabi-Canadian woman living in Alberta. She studied English Literature and Psychology at McGill University. When she isn't writing, she loves picking apart narratives in pop culture - especially in TV, movies and video games. Her interest in historical culture, religion and mythology is reflected in her first published piece, "At the Mouth". You can follow her on twitter: @gikhee.
Our narrator, Maya Chhabra, is a poet and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Mythic Delirium, and The Cascadia Subduction Zone, among other venues. Her novella Toxic Bloom is forthcoming from Falstaff Press, and her novelette Walking on Knives is available from Less Than Three Press. Her translation from the Russian of Marina Tsvetaeva's Fortune was published in Cardinal Points, Volume 8. She can be found on twitter @mayachhabra.
I’ll have links for both our author and narrator in the show notes.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
At the Mouth
Ramya was the one who told her after morning prayers. “The old ladies were saying Jaya is getting married to Raju.” They were sweeping the temple courtyard together before old man Balaji told them to come inside and begin their practice.
Aayushi squinted. “Raju’s father owns their house.”
“Of course he does. He owns half this temple too.” Ramya clicked her tongue. “You’re so slow.”
“Jaya wouldn’t want to marry him,” said Aayushi, hiking up her sari to lean over, sweeping along the far wall of the courtyard. They were getting closer to the gate, both of them managing to push along an ever-growing pile of dust, grains, rice, and flower petals that had scattered from the morning prayers. “Tell Balaji I’m going out. I ripped a seam in my blouse.”
“You’re full of shit,” said Ramya, but she was grinning. “Get one of those sweets next to Jaya’s house.”
“You’re always eating!” Aayushi scolded, pushing open the gates of the temple and hurriedly sweeping the threshold clean. She dropped her broom at Ramya’s feet, smoothed out her sari, and dashed away from the temple, following the downhill path into the village.
Kargal wasn’t a big village but it boasted a temple devoted to Indra with six devadasis paying homage to the deity along with a dozen brahmin that oversaw the complex. The temple was situated at the open mouth of a river, and the jungle spread around it, lush and thick. As Aayushi picked her way down the path from the temple gate to the main road of the village, the thunderous roar of the river began to fade out behind her, replaced now by the clamour of voices as the village got on with yet another day of business.
Aayushi passed the sweets shop first where Nandini wrapped up two maladus and then snuck an extra for her as she pointed to the open window of Jaya’s shop. “Did you hear she’s getting married?”
“No, she’s not,” said Aayushi before bidding her goodbye and crossing the road, into the open door of the clothes shop. There was already incense burning near the open windowsill of the shop, and Aayushi thought of kicking it over.
“Aayushi,” said Jaya from behind her.
Aayushi startled. “You scared me!”
Jaya laughed, her smile wide and her eyes crinkling. “If I can scare you, then you must be feeling off.”
“I’m fine,” she said. Jaya was wearing a green sari today, folded impeccably over her waist, the long piece coming over her shoulder elegantly, naturally. Her hair was in a long, black braid as usual, but there were flowers - small and white - tucked just behind her ear. When Jaya limped past her, Aayushi could smell the incense lingering on her skin. It was awful.
“So you are getting married.”
Jaya’s home was covered in fabrics - wool, cotton, silk - all dyed in bright colours, but still uncut and unembroidered. From the entrance all the way to the back, Aayushi could see the piles of neatly folded clothes, all carefully arranged by shades. She had been here when customers came in, watched how the new brides immediately crouched near the reds next to the windowsill, and the mourners who arrived would go to the pile of untouched whites near the back door. Aayushi always loved green, and Jaya kept it against the wall next to the red, said that’s where the devadasis liked to linger and gossip as they watched the new brides fret over which shade would suit them best.
“To Raju,” said Jaya as she limped out through the door into the back courtyard where Aayushi knew was her small stove. “He’s the only who didn’t ask for a dowry.”
“Your house is his dowry.”
With Jaya no longer in her sight, Aayushi pressed a fist against her stomach, willing the pressure to ease, but all she felt was a hopeless terror. Slowly, she made her way past the clothes into courtyard, where there was a cot under the shade, next to a stovetop and dishes.
Jaya was already seated on the cot, her bad leg propped along the length of the cot, as she busied herself portioning out water in two cups to make tea. The briquettes in her stove burnt hot, and Aayushi could smell the incense here too. It made her grimace as she crouched down next to Jaya. “Jaya…”
“I finished your sari for the next full moon,” said Jaya, not looking up while she poured the water from the cups into a pot. “It’s blue and gold. I sewed bells on the edges of the sleeves for when you dance.” She placed the pot on the flat clay of the stove and began to stoke the briquettes with a long stick.
“Don’t marry Raju,” said Aayushi softly. Her hands were fisted in the skirt of her orange sari, the colour reminding her too much of the fresh marigold garlands Jaya would have to wear at her wedding.
“I put flowers all along the hem of the skirt. The white ones you like that grow near the river.”
“Jaya,” said Aayushi, a little more loudly, desperately.
The water was slowly beginning to bubble. “Your blouse is silk, even though you asked for cotton, but it will match. I put in hooks at the sides in case you get fat with maladus before you put it on.”
The joke had Aayushi laughing, surprising herself, before looking up at Jaya. Jaya was moving to put in the tea leaves into her boiling water, a pinch of fennel and two pieces of crushed clove. Aayushi usually left by now to get goat’s milk from Nandini to use for the tea, but instead she felt stuck here, watching Jaya’s face, how Jaya refused to look at her even as she spoke.
“And there’s fish. On the shoulders.” Jaya sighed as she watched the water darken from the tea leaves and spices, letting out a smell that was much more comforting to Aayushi than the incense. “They’re climbing up against the waterfall, trying… trying to touch you.”
It was the way Jaya’s jaw was clenched so tight... Aayushi couldn’t help herself; she reached out, cupped Jaya’s cheek in her palm, and it was so easy and so familiar. Jaya leaned into the touch for just a moment before pulling away to lift the pot off the stove. There was no milk.
“I can get some from Nandini.”
Jaya shook her head. “I can drink it like this. Do you still…?”
“Yes, I’ll have some too.”
Carefully, Jaya poured the tea out into two cups, and poured some fresh water inside of the pan so the tea leaves would float instead of getting stuck along the inside. “I have no choice.”
Aayushi winced. Holding the cup meant she couldn’t hold Jaya, and the distance seemed immeasurable at that moment - with her on one side of Jaya’s cot and Jaya on the other, Jaya’s bad leg between them, tucked under the long green sari.
“I knew,” started Jaya, still not looking at her, “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“You don’t have to,” she said, staring at the unfinished chai in her hands.
“Raju didn’t ask for a dowry and he doesn’t mind my leg.”
“I don’t mind your leg either!” Aayushi stared up at her, hopeless. “Just because his father gave you a storefront after your parents died doesn’t mean you need to marry his son!”
Jaya reeled back, and her heavy brows drew together in anger. “I made you that sari for you to seduce some rich brahmin, Aaya. You will marry too. This - whatever this is - isn’t forever.”
“But you don’t want it!”
“It’s not about what I want!” Jaya’s shoulders were drawn tight and Aayushi couldn’t help remembering when she would massage them, knowing exactly how warm Jaya’s skin was under her touch, how she always grew so tense as she worked deep into the night to get her embroidery perfect on her saris. “It’s… It’s what’s required.”
Her small mouth was turned down at the corners. Aayushi wanted to kiss her. “Let’s run away to Bengalore, where the rajput lives.” Jaya stared at her, but Aayushi continued, unhindered. “We’ll join his harem, and be like Ravana’s wives, who kissed each other when he couldn’t kiss them.”
Jaya’s expression was soft with affection, but still she seemed so far away. “Silly Aaya.” She gestured to the house. “This isn’t a story. I am going to make more saris for you - when you’re married and when you’re pregnant and when you dance for Indra with the other devadasis. And you’re going to bless my marriage as the nitya sumangali and you’ll dance for Indra to not pass on this leg to my children.”
Before she could stop herself, Aayushi began to cry. “Just tell me what you want first.”
“I…” Looking at her hands, Jaya shook her head. “I want to prove I’m the best - at clothes, at embroidery, at sewing. I want to show everyone I can get by with this leg.”
“By getting married for money,” said Jaya, rolling her eyes. “Really, Aaya.”
“Okay.” Aayushi wiped at her face, cleaning her tears, before putting the chai down and standing up. “I’ll give you money.”
“Aayushi!” Jaya snapped. “I don’t need your charity!”
“But I’m a devadasi - I have money. I can give you money.”
“The rest of us aren’t like you!” She shouted, startling Aayushi for a moment. Sucking in a deep breath, Jaya seemed to regain her composure, but her entire frame shimmered with anger. “The rest of us can’t live like a carefree child like you. The rest of us have responsibilities.”
“I’m not a child,” said Aayushi, stung. She was twenty, a fully-fledged devadasi, who knew the sacred dances and could sing Lord Indra’s praises. “But I’m not so scared to hide behind a some man instead of seeing I could be something more.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” said Jaya, her voice flat, her gaze turning cold. “How could a child understand anything of an adult woman’s reality.”
The words felt like a physical blow. Aayushi stepped back, incomprehending for a moment. Still, Jaya sat there, her back straight, her dark eyes under her heavy brows meeting Aayushi’s as if to challenge her. She didn’t want Aayushi there. Aayushi didn’t want to be there anymore either.
She left, leaving her unfinished chai behind, and returned to the temple.
Before the full moon, the women in Kargal had fasted all day and arrived just after sundown at the temple for blessings of longevity and happy marriage and healthy children. Aayushi and Ramya had been busy all day with preparations - cooking and decoration and cleaning the temple along with the other devadasis - before Balaji and the other brahmins had summoned them to dance in the courtyard. As the crowd of women gathered to pay respects to Indra and the moon, Aayushi danced the familiar steps, listening to the cheers and claps from the audience, and was grateful it was over soon. She needed to find Nandini’s mother.
Though the majority of the village crowd were women, Aayushi saw some of the landowning men talking to the brahmins. Balaji was with Raju’s father, but Aayushi couldn’t spot Raju himself. She knew Jaya didn’t like making the walk to the temple in the evening where it was hard to see where to step with her bad leg. Instead, she usually sent her offerings with Nandini, who Aayushi finally spotted standing next to the statue of Indra, where the smoke from the burning incense wafted around her moon-round face. Her mother was next to her, and Aayushi ducked around the other devadasis to talk to them.
“Aaya!” Nandini’s mother was just as large and soft as the maladus her family sold. Aayushi bowed to touch her feet, bracing herself for the conversation to follow. “Jaya sent me up with her sari for you. The rajput’s sons are coming to Kargal for the winter solstice?”
“I wanted to look my best for them,” said Aayushi. “Did Raju come?”
“He’s somewhere around here.”
“He’s marrying Jaya.”
Nandini’s mother beamed. “She’s twenty-two, it’s overdue. And Raju is a good boy. His family is going to pay, so Jaya doesn’t have to worry about a thing. Now we just have to find a boy for you next.”
“And offend my true husband Indra-dev?” Aayushi relaxed as Nandini and her mother both laughed. Nandini crouched down next to the basket they had brought and got out of the silk sari for Aayushi.
Aayushi thanked her as she held the silk, feeling it slip between her fingers. “Jaya is only getting married for money.”
Immediately, Nandini’s mother clicked her tongue. “That’s not how women speak, Aayushi.”
“But it’s true,” insisted Aayushi, having braced herself all day for this conversation. “She wants to continue being a seamstress, but she thinks getting married is the only way she can keep doing that.”
“Aaya,” said Nandini quietly. “It took a long time for my ama to secure this match.”
Aayushi gripped onto the sari to keep it from sliding out from her arms. “We can - I can - help her. She doesn’t have to do this. She’s skilled enough to make double what she does now, but she lives in Kargal, not Siddapur or Sagar.”
Nandini’s mother shook her head, one soft hand cupping Aayushi’s cheek. “But that is not how women live, Aaya. Jaya said the same thing but she understands now what must be done.”
The topic was clearly too uncomfortable for Nandini’s mother as she soon moved away to go talk to the other older women. Nandini stood next to her basket of offerings, reaching out to snag one of Aayushi’s bangles on a finger and tugging her closer.
“Ama had to argue with Jaya day and night too.” Nandini’s face was cast half in shadow, and her chin tilted downwards, saddened. “But we don’t have any money for Jaya to borrow and Raju was there.”
“What if I gave her money?” Aayushi asked suddenly, turning towards her, the sari clutched tightly to her chest. “Then what?”
“Then nothing,” said Nandini, shrugging. “Jaya would still get married. It’s not about money anymore, Aaya. It’s just… what’s done.”
“But she doesn’t want it!”
“We have no choice!” Nandini didn’t raise her voice but she stared wide-eyed and imploring at Aayushi before looking away, embarrassed. “I mean, me and Jaya. You’re a devadasi. You are already married to a dev.”
Aayushi looked at Nandini’s finger still caught around her bangle on her wrist and felt so, so tired. “I’m a woman too.”
“Yes,” said Nandini, letting go of the bangle now. “But you’re not like us.”
The winter solstice would be coming in less than one full moon’s turn. Jaya would get married then, just before the rajput’s arrival here with his sons on his tour to see the temples. In the meantime, Aayushi tried on the new sari in her room with Ramya within the temple. Ramya clicked her tongue when she saw the embroidery was missing on one corner of the hem.
“You pay this girl for incomplete work?”
Aayushi smacked her arm but frowned. “She’s never done this before.” Changing back into her other sari, she carefully folded the blue silk back up. “I should get it fixed.”
“Don’t come back crying like last time,” said Ramya, waving goodbye.
Aayushi mustered a smile as if to reassure but felt it fade away as she left the temple to make her way into the village proper. The days beforehand, she had Ramya sell off a few of her jewellery in exchange for coin when the brahmins had sent them down for grocery shopping. Now, Aayushi had a small heavy purse full of coin that she tucked between the folds of the blue sari, and she could only hope Jaya would even see her much less accept her… her charity.
Still, Aayushi had to try.
The sweets storefront was being managed by Nandini’s little brother this time. He waved to Aayushi as she crossed the road to Jaya’s home. Swallowing down her anxiety, Aayushi stepped past the threshold, to be surrounded and swallowed by the piles of fabrics around her. Jaya was sitting near the open window, sewing the edges of a blouse together. Her bad leg was stretched out in front of her with a blanket thrown overtop, and her sari this time was coloured a pale yellow like the small flowers that dotted the path between the village and temple. Her rough, worked hands held the needle delicately as she sewed, her head bent downwards in concentration, her thick dark hair braided in a neat plait as usual. Standing there watching, Aayushi could recall how it felt when her fingers had carded through Jaya’s hair, how it felt like the earth after it had rained - so soft, so heavy. She could even remember the touch of Jaya’s calloused fingers, even as Aayushi massaged oil and butter into the skin to soften it, scolding her for working too hard.
“Jaya,” she called out. Immediately, Jaya jerked in surprise, head snapping up in attention. She had been so focused that she hadn’t even heard Aayushi come in.
“Aaya,” Jaya said, still clearly surprised.
“The sari,” started Aayushi before the words died away in her mouth.
Jaya looked down finally to see Aayushi holding the blue silk before gesturing for her to put it down next to Jaya. “Is there a mistake? Let me look.”
Aayushi handed the silk over, and Jaya’s precise fingers unfolded the length of it with an ease and familiarity that Aayushi wondered anyone else could imitate. It only took a few moments for the coin purse to fall out into Jaya’s lap as she spread the silk and Jaya paused, looking down. Immediately, Aayushi could feel all her awkward laughter and excuses pile behind her teeth, trying to come out, to pretend this never happened. This was a youth’s indulgence; Jaya would get married and Aayushi would continue to get her clothes done by her, and Aayushi’s frantic attempts to seemingly save Jaya would just be a pebble in the stream of their lives together.
Except Jaya didn’t look twice at the coin purse. She found the corner with the missing embroidery instead. “I haven’t done this before.”
“You haven’t,” agreed Aayushi eventually. “That’s why I had to come see you.”
Jaya looked up, a faint smile on her mouth. “That’s the only reason? Come, sit.”
Helpless, Aayushi sat down next to Jaya’s bad leg, sliding the palms of her hands over the ocean of silk spread between them. “I liked the fish on the blouse.”
“I’m glad.” Jaya put down her needle and thread for the other blouse and focused on the sari. “I can’t wait to see you dance in this.”
“You only ever come to the temple when I’m wearing something of yours.”
Jaya grinned, shameless. Aayushi couldn’t stop herself from staring at how beautiful Jaya was in this moment, looking perfectly at ease and content with her life, bantering with Aayushi as if this was any other day. As if there wasn’t a fat coin purse sitting right in her lap.
“If I take this purse,” interrupted Jaya, looking up at her from beneath her heavy brows. “If I take it, then I can never come back.”
“I…” A part of Aayushi wanted to be confident, wanted to say, “yes, of course, I knew that,” but no part of her was ready. She thought back to Nandini and her round face, her large imploring eyes. Isn’t this what she meant? That girls like Nandini and Jaya would always have to cave to the wants of the village - married off with their own aspirations relegated to the dusty corners of the courtyard. “I don’t want you to leave.”
“If I stay, I get married.”
“I don’t want you to get married either.”
Jaya sighed. “Then what do you want, Aaya? Silly girl.”
Fiddling with the silk, Aayushi looked out the window of the storefront. “I want you to be happy.”
“I’m happy with you.”
“No, you’re not.” Aayushi turned back towards Jaya. “You’re happiest… when you work. And I make you the happiest when I can show your work off.”
She doesn’t expect Jaya to reach out, her familiar rough hands cupping Aayushi’s palms. “You…” Her face was tipped down now, and Aayushi could see her long lashes cast shadows down her cheeks. “You’re like the sun. You’re so bright and warm and good. You think you can make everyone happier. You make me happy.”
“Please,” Aayushi choked out.
Jaya’s small mouth twisted in a frown. She shook her head but didn’t let go of Aayushi’s hand. “After you left last time, I was so upset. I didn’t know what to do. I only knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want you to be angry at me anymore. I didn’t want you to be… disappointed in me.”
“I would never,” she said quickly, tangling their fingers together and squeezing.
She received a wry smile in return; Jaya was looking up at her, her dark eyes bright. “I’m sorry. I might have purposely sent an unfinished hem so you would see me.”
A laugh came to her unbidden, had her watching Jaya helplessly, holding onto her hand. “I would have come back eventually.” That was the truth of it: if Jaya thought Aayushi was the sun, then Aayushi couldn’t help but think she was the ground beneath her feet, the steadiness in knowing every day the sun would set and the moon would rise and Jaya’s eyes would glitter like the stars in the sky.
“I love you,” said Jaya softly.
That should have been the end of it. The coin purse should have been ignored. They could stay together - here. Aayushi would wear her blue silk sari and seduce one of the rajput’s sons into marrying her and she could live out her life as a devadasi surrounded by wealth as she practiced her craft. And Jaya? She would stay here, married to Raju, the rich son of the village, who would let Jaya continue to be a seamstress that would impress Aayushi’s future husband. They would be bosom-buddies, gossiping and giggling behind veils, waiting until one of their husbands was out of sight before Aayushi could press her mouth to Jaya and revel in how Jaya gasped and pressed back.
But it wasn’t enough. It never would be. Jaya would languish under the toil of housework and never have her skill recognized apart from being Raju’s limping wife with the clever hands. Aayushi had her duties to her lord-husband Indra-dev as a devadasi; she could not play second-wife to Jaya no matter how much she loved her. This wasn’t the end Aayushi wanted for them, and it was terrifying.
“But,” said Aayushi. “But I can’t keep you.”
The hurt was clear on Jaya’s face: her brows drew together and her jaw clenched. She tried to withdraw her hand but Aayushi held on.
“You deserve more.” She believed it with her entire being, as sure as she was of her dance, her song, when she prostated herself for Indra-dev in the temple courtyard. “So you need to go.”
“You’ll let me go?” Jaya asked.
“Yes,” said Aayushi, nodding to the coin purse still in Jaya’s lap.
It took a moment for her to recognize that Jaya was tearing up, her expression twisted up as she cried. Panic flared in Aayushi’s chest as she launched herself across Jaya’s lap to hug her, press her face into the crook of her neck. Jaya held onto the skirt of Aayushi’s sari, heaving shuddering breaths against Aayushi’s collarbone.
“Nandini,” she started, “Nandini has a cousin in Kodkani, and she wants… She came back from the temple that night and she said she would help me leave, if I wanted.” It took a moment for Jaya to pull back, look up at Aayushi. “If I take your money, I can take my best saris and get to Kodkani, then make my way into Siddapur.”
Aayushi nodded. “I’ll help you. We all will.”
Jaya gave a watery smile. “Thank you.”
It was a sweeter phrase than her confession.
The rajput’s sons were delayed by three turns of the moon due to the monsoon season. The brahmins were slick in a sheen of anxiety as they made sure to clean the temple as best they could before the arrival. The rajput’s sons came with an entourage - their soldiers, bodyguards, servants, slaves, and select women from the harem. Ramya was gossiping with the other devadasis when Aayushi finally got on her blue sari, and they crowded together in fascination as the temple gates opened to welcome the royalty.
Aayushi danced - in honour of Indra, in honour of the rajput, in honour of the village of Kargal - along with the other devadasis, keeping beat with Ramya’s high, clear voice as she sang. The sun was low in the sky by the time the welcoming festivities came to a close to the bloody sacrifice of a goat and the serving of food. The devadasis sat aside from the rajput’s sons and brahmins, but the harem women came over to chat.
It was only when one of them got close enough that Aayushi spotted a familiar embroidery of flowers along the hem of one of the women’s sari. Already, her heart was in her throat, her hand reaching out to brush against the silk as the harem women sat around them.
“Who did this?” Aayushi asked without preamble.
Ramya smacked her arm. “She meant your sari is very pretty.”
The other women laughed. The one wearing the sari sat next to Aayushi and looked at the hem. “It’s strange, isn’t it? She put fish instead of flowers, but it’s beautiful.”
“Who?” Aayushi pressed.
The woman tipped her head in recollection. “I got this one while we were in Sagar. There’s a seamstress apprentice there who makes strange designs but they’re popular. I had to get one for myself.”
Ramya leaned forward. “Sagar is south of Siddapur.”
Aayushi scoffed. “I know.” But Ramya was holding her hand now, squeezing her fingers, and Aayushi squeezed back. “That apprentice is going to be famous one day.”
The woman traced her fingers along the embroidered fish before catching the same design over Aayushi’s blouse. Her smile seemed knowing then. “She told me it was made with love.”
Aayushi ducked her head, shy.
Suddenly, the devadasis erupted in whispers as Aayushi looked up to see one of the rajput’s sons walking towards where they were sitting. His eyes were on her. Aayushi let go of Ramya’s hand and straightened her posture. Jaya was working hard to do what she loved; Aayushi wouldn’t fall behind.
The fourth story in our 2018 fiction series. Written by Gurmika Mann and narrated by Maya Chhabra.
“At the Mouth” by Gurmika Mann is set in the southern part of India in the 10th century
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