Girls Burn Brighter

Girls Burn Brighter

Shobha Rao



For Leigh Ann Morlock




Indravalli



The most striking thing about the temple near the village of Indravalli was not readily apparent. No, one had to first climb the mountain and come close; one had to take a long, thoughtful look at the entrance. At the door. Not at its carved panels, or its fine graining, but at how the door stood so brave and so luminous and so alone. How it seemed to stand strong and tall, as if still a tree. It was the wood, lumbered from a grove of trees northwest of Indravalli. The grove was cultivated by an old woman—they said more than a hundred years old—who was childless. She and her husband had been farmers, and when she’d come to understand that she would never have children she’d started planting trees as a way to care for something, as a way to nurture something fragile and lovely. Her husband had surrounded the young saplings with thorny bushes to keep out wild animals, and it being a dry region, she’d had to carry water from many kilometers away to water them. Their grove now boasted hundreds of trees. All of them steady and swaying in the dry wind.

A journalist from a local newspaper once went to interview the old woman. He arrived at teatime, and he and the old woman sat in the shade of one of the trees, its wide leaves rustling high above them. They sipped their tea soundlessly; even the journalist, forgetting all his questions, was overcome by the quiet green beauty of the place. He had heard of her childlessness and her recently dead husband, and so, to be delicate, he said, “They must keep you company. The trees.”

The old woman’s gray eyes smiled, and she said, “Oh, yes. I’m never lonely. I have hundreds of children.”

The journalist saw an opportunity. “So you see them as children?”

“Don’t you?”

There was silence. The journalist took a long, deep look into the grove of trees, their thick trunks, their strength, despite drought and disease and insects and floods and famine, and yet shining with gold-green light. Radiant even in the heat and heaviness of afternoon. “You’re a fortunate woman,” he said, “to have so many sons.”

The old woman looked up at him, her eyes on fire, her wrinkled face taking on the glow of her girlhood. “I am fortunate,” she said, “but you’re mistaken, young man. These aren’t my sons. Not one. These,” she said, “are my daughters.”





1

Poornima never once noticed the door of the temple. Neither did Savitha. But the temple watched them closely, perched as it was on the mountain that towered over Indravalli. The village itself was near the banks of the Krishna River, a hundred or so kilometers inland from the Bay of Bengal. Though it was situated in a level valley, the hamlet was shadowed by one of the largest mountains in Andhra Pradesh, called Indravalli Konda, with the temple halfway up its eastern face. It was painted a brilliant white and looked to Savitha like a big boll of cotton. To Poornima, the temple looked like the full moon, perpetually embraced by the sky and the branches of the surrounding trees.

Poornima was ten years old when she stood outside her family’s hut, staring at the temple; she turned to her father, who was seated on the hemp-rope cot behind her, and asked, “Why did you and Amma name me after the full moon?” Her mother was sitting at the loom, working, so Poornima didn’t want to bother her with the question. But she might’ve—she might’ve thought nothing at all of bothering her, of clinging to her neck, of breathing in every last trace of her scent—had she known her mother would be dead in another five years. But her father didn’t even look up when she asked him. He just went on rolling his tobacco. Maybe he hadn’t heard. So Poornima began again. “Nanna, why did you—”

“Is dinner ready?”

“Almost.”

“How many times do I have to tell you to have it ready when I come in?”

“Was it because I was born on a full moon night?”

He shrugged. “I don’t think so.”

Poornima then imagined the face of a baby, and she said, “Was my face round like the moon?”

He sighed. He finally said, “Your mother had a dream, a few days after you were born. A sadhu came to her in the dream, and he said if we named you Poornima, we’d have a boy next.”

Poornima looked at him as he lit his tobacco, and then she went back inside the hut. She never again asked about her name. On full moon nights, she tried her hardest to not even look up. It’s just a stone, she decided, a big gray stone in the sky. But it was hard to forget, wasn’t it? That conversation. It would pop up out of nowhere at times, seemingly out of nothing. While she tasted for salt in a pot of sambar, for instance, or while she served her father tea. The sadhu had been right, of course: she had three little brothers. So what was there to be sad about? Nothing, nothing at all. She even felt pride at times, and said to herself, I was their hope and I came true. Imagine not coming true. Imagine not having hope.

*

At fifteen, Poornima came of marriageable age, and she stopped going to the convent school. She began to sit at the spinning wheel, the charkha, in her free time to help the household. Each spool of thread she completed—the thread sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes silver—earned her two rupees, and this seemed like a fortune to her. And in some ways, it was: when she’d begun menstruating at the age of thirteen, she was gifted the most expensive piece of clothing she’d ever worn, a silk langa costing a hundred rupees. I can earn that in less than two months, she thought breathlessly. Besides: that she, a girl, could earn anything, anything at all, lent her such a deep and abiding feeling of importance—of worth—that she sat at the charkha every chance she got. She woke early in the morning to spin, then spun after the breakfast dishes were washed, after lunch was prepared and served, and then again after dinner. Their hut had no electricity, so her spinning was a race against the sun. Full moon nights were also bright enough to continue, but they only came around once a month. So on most nights, once the sun went down, she’d put her charkha away, look impatiently at the crescent moon or the half-moon or the gibbous moon, and complain, “Why can’t you always be full?”

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