This essay won the Prof. Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize, 2022 in the college category. The theme was Finding a Self. The judge, writer Barathi Nakkeeran had this to say: “Abhirami Bose’s essay begins with the most ordinary materials: mud and leaves. Quickly, though, it transforms into a story about a young girl trying to find her place in a complex world; an alternate reality slithering along. Part real, part magical, Bose’s essay is entirely beautiful. Her ability to incorporate multiple contexts into a compact sequence is admirable. I look forward to reading more stories by this talented voice.”
To be or not to be a goat – By Abhirami Bose
J’s house was a skip and hop away from mine. During the summer, all of us kids would impatiently gobble down the last of our breakfast before running to her house, ignoring our mothers and grandmothers calling after our lightning bolt backs.We spent the whole of our vacation in her yard, making sure that we didn’t waste even a minute of the precious little time we had. In the ephemeral period before the sun went down, we created a universe of our own. Using sticks and sacks, we built houses. They were called kutti peras (small houses/child’s house) and an adult could not stand straight in them. Mud was rice, and jaathi (nutmeg) leaves were fresh chaala (sardines) that we bought from the meenkaran (fisherman) after a good amount of bargaining. Only a seasoned fellow participant knew the differences between each ingredient we used to cook the chaala. Sand was salt, brick powder was chilly powder, and if we happened to find any new interesting substance, we collectively decided what it was supposed to be and if it could go in the fish curry or fish fry, whatever we decided to cook that day. We selected our daily clothes from old Vanitha magazines, and pretended to wear them while making shh sounds with our mouths. In most cartoons when something magical happened they made an Shh sound with sparkles flying around in the screen. That was where we picked it up from. Shh meant magic and when we shh sparkles flew.
On one of those days, as we were out to “buy” some fresh vegetables from S’s garden, J caught me casually plucking a leaf from a creeper and popping it into my mouth. When she probed, I offered one and told her that it was yummy. She knew better than to take it from me. I confessed that I had started to develop a fondness for leaves that summer. It started with tender nutmeg leaves but by then I had moved on to other interesting ones. I genuinely thought that everyone ate leaves.I was surprised that J did not, in fact, eat leaves unless they were approved and cooked by her Achan. Neither did S or P. Human beings did not chew on all leaves like I was accustomed to doing by then, human beings were not goats. Unfortunately I was a boring human but I convinced myself otherwise. I had a goat living inside of me. What other reason does a girl have to passionately hunt for leaves to munch on?
In 8th grade we found each other. All six of us. We combined the first letter of our names and called ourselves MTA raised to 4.We were not six girls but one single entity.
At one point we decided that we should all be an animal. It all started with A1 calling T a crow because there was a huge tree in front of T’s house where all the crows in the town of Irinjalakuda seemed to have built a nest. The tarred road that ran before T’s gate was invariably always white. M was a crocodile because her name rhymed with Modhala, A1 a cow because she had the teeth, A2 was a rat because her name had the word rat in it, A3 was a pig because she had the nose and I was a goat. Someone randomly decided that I should be a goat while being completely oblivious to my history associated with the animal. Something about me reminded them of a goat, I was told. For me this was enough confirmation that I was probably not meant to be human, especially since I secretly still chewed on random leaves whenever I got the chance. Was it the way I bleated my words that gave me away? I silently whimpered for the goat in me.
Even after I became an adult I was convinced that I had a goat living inside me as firmly as I believed it as a four year old, until one random day I sat down and wrote a story. It was about a girl, who in the spur of an angry moment wished that she was a goat in her mutton soup, only to die of unknown reasons and be born again as a goat and end up in her family’s mutton soup.
I told nobody that I was actually seeking redemption for the goat that I believed I had in me or I was in some other reality.
Until recently Irinjalakuda, the town I grew up in, stayed oblivious to the existence of cheesecakes and rasmalai, warding off huge buildings and new people. I went to a small school where everyone knew everyone. Even though speaking in English was an important rule that the school was strict about, nobody cared about how we spoke the language. Whenever we were out of the radius of our teachers’ ears, all of us spoke a creative amalgam of Malayalam and English. We added “ing” to the Malayalam verbs and fitted them perfectly well in our otherwise English sentences. I am nadakkaling to the bus stop. (I am walking to the bus stop.) Nobody made fun of anybody because nobody knew any better. Except for the occasional Communicative English teachers, our accent or pronunciation was not monitored at all.
Achan, like most malayali men of his time, had found his way to the gulf to pull his family out of debt. To play his part to the fullest, every time he visited us, he brought infinite chocolates that disappeared within the span of a few weeks, along with dabbas of tiger balm and olive oil. I made the chocolates disappear. As a result of pulling off this magic trick successfully, I had the worst teeth ever.
I used to hate my dentist, his balding head and his shiny steel tools but I loved the bookstore next to his clinic. Amma being the clever woman that she is,made sure that I got a book if I sat through the sessions without much protest. It worked. More than whatever I learnt from any schools, I taught myself through those books.There was a sense of ownership in learning that way and I liked that.
Up until I changed schools and joined a posh one in the city, I was not concerned about my English speaking skills. That is where I realised that there is a difference between learning words through reading and picking them up from others while conversing. In the new school, everyone spoke an English similar to the one I had only heard on TV, with the kind of confidence I could only dream about. I had to squint my eyes and listen really hard to understand them. After H laughed at me for mispronouncing cooperation and lingerie, I decided that adopting a docile nature altogether would save me. I thought if I were extra nice, smiled a lot and spoke less, it would not matter if my language was bad. In retrospect, I understand that my fear of being othered was so bad that I became desperate to be liked by all.
More reasons to believe that my goat self was living the best life in some other reality.
In the third year of college, we had to take our end semester exams online because of the pandemic. In our Arts and Culture paper, we were asked to write about a moment of epiphany we had in class.
I thought of Prof. V.
Prof. V came to class with a fat water bottle, spoke in the calmest voice and told the most amusing stories. I took the words she spoke on feminism home to my little sister. Through her words I learnt to accept, acknowledge, and own my caste and everything that came with it. I wanted to be Prof.V. She knew so much, wrote so much and read so much. But, I was just a duckling learning to walk, when she’s a kite, high up in the sky. One day she changed my life by simply speaking about where she came from. For a girl who could not pronounce “cooperation” till the age of seventeen, for a first generation English speaker of her family, a professor talking about her similar background, her humble beginning, and struggles are nothing short of a beacon of hope. I saw myself in her and that “me” had some hope of being a kite one day. At that point of life that is all I needed. A little hope.
I wrote my answer that day, softly crying, but that was no new news. Every time I think about the women who helped me at least once, my heart brims with gratefulness and my eyes with tears. If Amma had not taught me to be kind, if R had not taught me to set boundaries, MTA4 did not have my back and K and the others did not answer my call no matter how late at night, would I be the same person? I doubt.
Do goats feel grateful? If they don’t, only if they don’t, I am glad I was born a human.
Since I believed Prof. V and I were almost the same people, when she brought Gabriel Garcia Marquez to class, I was sure that I would love him. What I did not know then was that he would save me in ways I cannot put into words. I remember reading One hundred years of solitude lying on my hostel bed filled with all the knick-knacks that I owned, sitting in the long corridor soaking in the sunlight, and standing against the washing machine feeling its vibrations on my tummy. In all of these scenarios, I am sure that I had my mouth open. I was amazed at how many seemingly impossible things were possible in that novel.
Marquez gave me a sense of liberty; a freedom to do anything I want in the stories I weaved. Till this day, I have not felt anything more exhilarating than building a story and breathing life to it exactly the way I want. The authority that I hardly ever feel over anything else in the world including myself, I find in a blank paper. So I wrote about a witch who writes erotic stories but refuses to have sex with her lover, a grandfather that became a zebra, a dog that swallowed cocaine, and what not.
These stories are my brain vomit. I love my works even though I doubt them a lot, frown at them often and feel the cringe run through my body every time I revisit. In the end, I am perfectly aware, I stripped the words off my brain and pasted them onto the pages. In every sense, they were a part of me. My stories make me feel like I am an actual someone and not just a girl housing a goat inside her.
Gabe, if you are listening, you saved a goat girl, you helped her be.
Sometimes I pretend that I am a wall in the middle of a forest, listening to the birds and the trees, moss ridden and standing tall. Otherwise, I am the floor. My thoughts collect themselves in my throat and they weigh me down till I sink to the floor. Lying straight as a log, I imagine blending in and eventually becoming it. These are the two states that help me arrange my thoughts; I entangle them, lift them up by their legs to take a hard look at their faces. Does this one have horns? Will this one make me cry? This one is beautiful, I should save it! Sometimes I wish I could say shh for the magic to clear my head and I did not have to look my thoughts in the eye.
I frequently wonder if I get way too worked up in a debate on the relevance of feminism with a silly boy. Then I remind myself of the choking burn I felt in my throat when C told me how she was abused in her sleep. How I had to fight to convince some male members of the family that women following their passion was not the reason why families break apart. I remember how I have to defend each and every decision I make because I am a small town girl after all and change for someone like me, however small or big, could easily be the butt of ‘small town girl- gone-astray-in-the-city’ jokes. I tell myself that someone else chose to talk too much about these things to make my life a little easier. I have to do it for the sake of making someone else’s life a tad better.
It sounds silly now but for the longest time I was convinced that I was invincible. I worried about everyone’s else’s death but mine. The most painful liberation is the liberation from this blissful state of ignorance. It is like someone yanking off your blanket on a cold morning. You are caught by surprise and you’re woken up. Two years into my 20s, I suddenly became aware that I am just a fragile human being. The fact that I am blood, skin, bones and muscles hit me hard. That means I am perishable.This fact terrifies me more than it should but I understand that it is inevitable.
At 22, I do not know what I want in life and it overwhelms me. I hope this is what 22 year olds generally feel.
At times I feel like I am constantly expected to dream big. I have always been a lazy person so I do not bother to chase anything, not even a KSRTC bus. To avoid the stress that expectations bring to the table, one good morning I decided that I do not have any goals or dreams. I set myself free. It does not matter if I I did not change the world or could not buy expensive cars but if I stopped looking out of the windows of a metro train in hope of catching a glimpse of the red head of gulmohar trees, if I stopped writing love letters to L, and did not make funny faces at N through my mobile screen, I would not be so much of me.
Breaking my head over winning a race that I did not even sign up for sounds so stupid, so unromantic. In the grand scheme of things I might not matter but here and now I am somebody and the little something that I do, I want to do with love in my heart.
If I can’t do that, I want to go to the reality where I am a goat.