When Ambika Krishnan was four, a mother at playgroup – not her mother, but one of the shimmering blonde mothers who didn’t grease their hair with coconut oil at four thirty every morning, who didn’t wall their smiles behind a protective hand, who didn’t adjust and re-adjust their sari, who threw their heads back when they laughed – scowled at her as she ran past, shrieking and playing with the other children.
‘Children are seen and not heard,’ she said.
Ambika’s own mother busied herself in a different direction, pretended obliviousness, said nothing. But Ambika caught the sidelong look that her mother shot the shimmering blonde mother. She saw the heartbeat of hesitation as her mother weighed up who to favour. Ambika watched her mother’s lips seal together into a thin line, and her head turn grudgingly, tremulously away as if fighting her own instincts. Before Ambika could read words, she read her mother.
So Ambika quietened her squeals of delight, and shrank 5 centimetres.
When she was 10, Ambika’s teacher, Mr Woods, who towered above her like a sequoia with a shock of red hair and a grizzly red beard, stared at her chest and knotted his brows. His gaze lingered on the prepubescent buds of her breasts until she squirmed and patted at the front of her school shirt. Mr Woods concertinaed himself stiffly in half till his mouth was in line with her ear and said in a stage whisper loud enough for Will Butler – who sat next to her and who she like-liked – to hear, ‘You’re really filling out.’
Will, his eyes blooming to the size of the saucers in her mother’s good tea set, sniggered. So Ambika, her cheeks burning, pressed one more button through the buttonhole on her shirt, and shrank 5 centimetres.
When Ambika was 12 and in her last year of primary school, the crosswalk guard at the entrance to her school leered at her legs – a part of her body she had not previously thought of as anything other than useful transportation, and aids to climbing her favourite tree. ‘You’ve got legs for days,’ he said. ‘And that uniform’s short enough to show ‘em off.’ There was nobody else at the crosswalk to bear witness, no aunties to cluck their disapproval of her attire, no uncles to distract or reign in this man. Unaccustomed to having her body critiqued, unequipped to retort, Ambika cast her eyes down to the glistening pitch on the road, tugged at the hem of her dress, and shrank 5 centimetres.
‘She’s short for her age,’ the school nurse said, her brows knitting together. ‘Something to keep an eye on.’
At 13, on the precipice of the life she was yet to lead, she waited in the wings of the theatre for her dance recital. Two men she didn’t know, loitering back stage, nudging each other and pointing at performers, turned their attention to her. They talked about Ambika as if she was a fine piece of furniture to be tested for comfort. In loud voices and with raucous laughter, they discussed her firm, round buttocks, comparing her bum to a peach and wondering aloud if she too had peach fuzz that would tickle their lips. ‘Nah, she’s a kiwi fruit, ’cause she’s brown and fuzzy,’ one of them said, and they congratulated one another on their incomparable wit. The other performers backstage busied themselves with tasks that required undivided attention. If they heard, they pretended not to. Her face aflame, her heart thundering, Ambika dragged her eyes from the floorboards to look at them. ‘Smile! You look pretty when you smile,’ they said. So Ambika forced a grin across her face, shrank 10 centimetres, and stepped out onto the floodlit stage.
When she was 15 and working at her town’s only fast food restaurant, a group of ten or more sailors blew in. She didn’t know exactly how many. They formed an amorphous, pulsating organism that jostled and jockeyed to the front of her cash register. They ordered their burgers and drinks, and jeering and cheering and egging one another on, they each asked for a side order of her phone number. Ambika smiled through her embarrassment and distress, shook her head, and shrank 5 centimetres.
‘She’s a late bloomer,’ her parents said. ‘She’ll grow in time.’
At 19, Ambika met friends at the popular new nightclub in town. In the darkness, in the crush of bodies, in the air thick with the competing odours of sweat and perfumes and colognes and hormones, punctuated by an occasional strobe that ricocheted off the glass and chrome, Ambika began to relax, began to exhale the breath she’d been holding for years. She sipped dirty martinis – two decades out of fashion and tasting like the smell of the paint remover her father stored in an old jam jar in the garage – till she felt the knots between her shoulder blades unwind. She lowered her guard, flirted and teased, and allowed herself to be led through the darkness.
Later, in the bathroom, a stranger plunged his penis roughly, repeatedly into her as he breathed, ‘I saw you watching me. I know girls like you. I know you like it rough.’ Ambika dug her nails into his back and retreated to happy memories of long, hot, humid childhood vacations spent at her grandmother’s home. She held her breath once more, to stop the stench of urine – and of him – from invading her lungs, and shrank 10 centimetres.
At 24, Ambika sat at the desk of her first full-time grown-up job, her manager massaging her shoulders. His thumbs kneaded the flesh below her clavicle as she silently worried over the chicken curry she’d packed for lunch in the Tupperware container with the lid that didn’t snap all the way closed. ‘A lot of girls don’t like me rubbing their shoulders,’ he said. ‘But you know I don’t mean anything by it. I’m a happily married man. You understand.’ Ambika winced. She imagined the brown gravy from her lunch seeping soundlessly around her keys, her lipstick, the mints she knew she’d put in there but could never find when she needed them, staining the pages of her address book a bilious yellow. A faint earthy smell of masala with sharp tangy notes of tomato wafted to her nostrils – or maybe she imagined that too. She ignored the rock at the pit of her stomach agitating her insides, and shrank 5 centimetres.
‘She’s petite,’ her co-workers said. ‘Compact and fun-sized.’
When she was 28, minutes before she walked around the sacred fire with her soon-to-be husband, he took her aside and detailed exactly what he expected of his soon-to-be wife. ‘No need to continue work,’ he said. ‘It would be shameful. People would think I don’t earn enough to keep you. Your domain is inside the home. Mine is outside.’ Behind and beneath his words Ambika heard the whispered entreaties of her mother – so much like her own voice now – keeping tempo, measuring the tala of expected obedience. So Ambika extinguished the fire in her eyes, bowed her head coyly, walled her smile behind a protective hand, and shrank 10 centimetres.
When she was 35, sleep deprived, lacking adult conversation, and with two small children underfoot, Ambika’s husband came home late from work, his breath a slap of rancid alcohol, his clothes infused with the stale stench of cigarettes and another woman’s perfume. ‘Look at the state of this place. Why can’t you clean up this mess? And wash your hair,” he spat before stumbling towards the spare room. “I’m sick of the smell of coconut oil,’ he appended in muffled tones from the other side of a slammed door, rubbing salt into her already gaping wounds. So Ambika put the children to bed, scrubbed clean their cramped apartment, scoured every trace of coconut oil from her hair, and shrank 5 centimetres.
At 47 Ambika stood in her kitchen where the lingering spirits of spices and frying-oil clung to every surface like anxious poltergeists. Her teenaged son loomed above her, his face contorted in rage, the manifestation of all the demons of her childhood nightmares. Eyes downcast she noted the contrast of his boots, caked in dried mud, against the gleam of the spotless tiled floor – scrubbed dutifully each night for the last twelve years. He reinterpreted her strict delineation between indoors and out by wearing shoes inside and going barefoot outside; an oppugnant reflection of herself. Unlike her daughter, her son refused to conform to her rules of cleanliness and purity and piety. Where her daughter accepted, her son rejected.
‘I hate you,’ he bellowed, stabbing each syllable into the soft meat of her soul. Spittle flecked the air and the corners of his mouth. His anger cascaded over and around her, voraciously consuming oxygen, leaving her breathless. Ambika clutched her chest – her heart shattering to the rhythm of his words – mouthed a mantra to Durga, and shrank 5 centimetres.
When she was 50, Ambika’s daughter announced to the room that she was moving out, and in with her boyfriend. Ambika’s husband shouted and railed that this was not what good girls did. Ambika said nothing. ‘I have to go, Amma,’ her daughter said. ‘I don’t want to end up like you.’ Her daughter packed clothes and treasured books, took leave of the gods, and hugged Ambika before climbing into a rusted, rattling Holden Barina and driving away. Ambika watched her escape, and shrank 5 centimetres.
When Ambika was 63, her grandson – newly toddling on unsteady legs, visiting with his parents – pulled away from her outstretched arms and clung to his mother’s leg. ‘No! No no no no!’ he wailed when she pried him away. ‘Give him some time to get used to you, Mother,’ her son said, lifting the child out of her arms. Not Amma as she had taught him. Not Mummy, like he’d called her for a month when he was ten, testing the word for solidity with his tongue, the extra ems buzzing angrily against his soft palate, before discarding it as too cool to ever apply to her. Not even Mum the way his friends had casually referred to their mothers, like they were friends who hung out together. Mother. The sharp edges and fine points of the word stung her and she retreated. He had meant it that way, as an admonishment, a warning, a marking of boundaries. ‘And maybe don’t wear a sari next time. He isn’t used to seeing them.’ Ambika forced a smile and waggled her head in a slow figure of eight. She lit the diya in welcome for her son and his family, and sought solace in the smell of fire and coconut oil. Her grandchild – used to birthday cakes and candles – inauspiciously blew out the light. Ambika gasped but said nothing. The child’s parents laughed and praised him for so cleverly making the association. So Ambika mumbled a prayer under her breath to Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, and shrank 5 centimetres.
At 65, Ambika saw her daughter at the mall. Her daughter did not see her. The girl had grown taller, more confident, more strident. Had it not been for the earrings, the ones Ambika had given the jeweller to pierce her ears with when the child was two, Ambika would not have recognised her daughter. She watched the girl – a woman now – with her friends, laughing openly, her head thrown back, mouth open, with a freeness that Ambika envied. She watched until it became awkward, until she felt as if others were watching her. Then, with a mix of relief and jealousy, Ambika turned away, adjusted her ill-fitting clothes, and shrank 5 centimetres.
When she turned 68 Ambika’s husband had the temerity to die of a heart attack. He lay slumped in his chair at the dining table, a yellow-brown hand print on his white undershirt marking the place where his heart had once beaten. Two days later, Ambika watched her son circle his father’s funeral pyre as she had once circled their wedding flames, the tilt of her son’s head, the determined set of his mouth, the confident strut so like her husband’s. Later, when Ambika immersed her husband’s ashes in the sea, she mouthed Om namo Narayana’ya to free his soul to its next incarnation, and free her own to this one. With her husband gone, she was launched into the world like a fledgling chick and forced to navigate bills and banking and cars and friendships. She questioned her worth and her place, wondered if friends who visited, then phoned, then were not heard from again had ever really liked her, or whether they had simply accepted her as part of the deal brokered for friendship with her gregarious husband. She pieced the shards of her old life together with tired hands, and shrank 5 centimetres.
At 77 she made gulab jamun – her grandson’s favourite – and asked him questions about school as he rolled his eyes. ‘Fine,’ he mumbled at her, plugging his earbuds firmly in. So Ambika pursed her lips, moulded the milky-white balls by hand, dropped them with barely a splash into the hot ghee, and shrank 5 centimetres.
At 85, her husband long dead, Ambika rubbed the tips of her fingers over the lump on her hip. ‘It’s an unremarkable lump,’ her doctor said. ‘But at your age you have to be more careful. You should consider full-time care.’ So Ambika hid her pain and shame and hurt, resigned herself to giving up her carefully built life, her home, her freedom, and shrank 5 centimetres.
‘You’re so short,’ her grandson said. ‘You could be the world’s smallest woman.’
When she was 93, Ambika lay in her nursing home bed surrounded by the warring smells of antiseptic and boiled cabbage and despair. She pressed her bedside buzzer. Once. Twice. Thrice she buzzed for a nurse, an orderly, another human being. Nobody came. So Ambika let the buzzer slip from her fingers and clang against the metal rail of her bed frame. The silence that followed was broken by a pop like the first strike of the idakka kol against the drum’s cow hide head, and she disappeared. In her place appeared a small pyramid of ash and grit.
A nurse on his rounds, eyes glued to his clipboard, called, ‘Mrs Krishnan, it’s time for your bath. Mrs Krishnan?’
His voice trailed into the quiet of the room. He furrowed his brows at the pile of ash on the bed and brushed it away, tut-tutting.