Swish. Swish. Click. Swish.
I watch the fan blades slowly move above my head, the stutter just a part of the rhythm. I’m laying on the family bed upstairs, limbs askew, full from lunch. As though from a distance, I hear the cars pass by on the street below, the chatter of the goatherds taking their animals through the town, the occasional lorry taking an illegal shortcut through our street, cutting through to the warehouse district, the food vendors hawking their goods, loud, poetic, repetitive. The wail of a baby in the house next door slowly rises until it abruptly stops. I wonder briefly, did it suffocate? The thought floats away, followed by nothing. I gaze up at the blades, willing them to move faster. The fan is helpless in the face of the stultifying heat; it is high summer in Coimbatore.
I think longingly of the pond in my Thatha’s village, envisioning the cool, wet mud under my feet as I wade into the dark waters, pushing away the tendrils of the lotus plants, beautiful but treacherous to the unsuspecting. If only we were there, I think. Then I sit up. I remember the overflow tank next to the well at the back of the property.
I open up the camphor chest at the foot of the bed, lifting out the wooden trays, old linens, saris, searching. And then I find it: my mother’s old swimsuit. A pale salmon one piece with ruffles all over, I’ve wanted to try it on ever since I saw it earlier that week. My mother had been putting away some of her out-of-season, elaborate saris, and had come across her old swimsuit. She sat there for a minute, holding it, lost in her memories, and then showed it to me. I wanted to try it on, but she was impatient to be done and took it back. It has been calling to me, every time I walk by the chest. Now I have a reason to wear it.
I lock the bedroom door and take off my cotton shift. Do I take off my panties too? I’m not sure, I have never worn a swimsuit before. I stand there, holding it, turning it this way and that, trying to find a zipper, some way to open it up so I can put it on. Tears of frustration well in my eyes, until it clicks: I have to step in and pull it up around me. Of course! I quickly take off my panties, and looking over at the locked door, surreptitiously place one foot and then the other into the suit, tugging it up and over my hips, and then feed my arms through the straps. The crossover straps thwart me at first, but I pull them over my head and force my arms through. Sweating, I stand there, successful, in my mother’s suit.
Now the fear starts to build. What if someone walks in? No, the door is locked. What would they think if they tried the door and found it locked? What would I say I was doing? Panicking, I unlock the door, then crouch behind it, holding my shift in front of me, a thin protection. I think of the path I have to take through the house, all the opportunities to be seen, half naked, wearing a swimsuit, and I almost give up.
It is however, that dead time between two and four in the afternoon, when everyone in the house is taking their afternoon nap. I should have been as well, but I hadn’t been able to, the heat was so unbearable.
Bolstered by this thought, I inch down the stairs, through the dining room, into the laundry and mud room, and then finally ease the back screen door open. I wait to see if anyone has heard me, then head down the few steps to the back patio. The old well looms in the distance, framed by Thatha’s coconut trees. Looking back towards the house one last time, I pick my way past the rose bushes, lime, mango, and pomegranate trees, to the back of the property.
The well is large, grey cement, circular, with a great pumping mechanism built into the top, a mesh screen to prevent debris from falling in, and steps spiraling up to the rim. The overflow tank is to the left of the well, a brown square cement tank, with a couple steps up. The top of the tank is high above my head, as I stand there looking up at it. It sits there, brooding, waiting. I can hear the occasional caw of the neighborhood crows, and the noises of passersby on the street seem distant. A slight movement at the edge of my vision makes me jump. Panicking, I look over, but it is just a scrawny tabby, hunched on the wall, watching me. I stick my tongue out at it, laugh, and climb the steps up to the tank.
From the top step, I can just reach across the gap and touch the top of the well. The cement feels cool and grainy under my fingers. I flatten my hands on the top, getting ready to hoist myself up when I hear a distant plop…Thatha had told me that frogs lived in there. I shudder slightly, thinking of the slimy creatures moving around at the bottom of the well, and step back. Looking back at the tank, I notice that the water is more than three quarters of the way full, and completely still. There is a thin, oily film on the surface, and then I see a dragonfly alight, breaking the surface tension. The ripples are miniscule, and seem to take a really long time moving to the edges of the tank.
I have never been this close to the tank before; Thatha had always warned me away. Exhilarated at what I am about to do, I shiver a little, and then with quick jump, lift myself onto the top of the wall. Overbalancing, I feel myself slide down the other side and catch myself, scraping my legs, frantic not to fall into the water. I laugh at myself, not fall into the water? That’s why I am here! “Silly goose,” I mutter. I look at the still water again, and then slowly ease my feet and legs in. The cool water accepts my limbs, soothing the angry welts and calming me. The dark tank walls make it so I can’t see very far into the depths, but I can see, faintly, the top of my feet, floating gently below the surface. I waggle my feet, watching the ripples.
Seeing movement again, I look over to see that the tabby has moved closer in, watching me intently. As I meet its eyes, its tail twitches, ever so slightly. I look slowly away, uncertain, feeling hunted. Gazing back at the water, I think about the village pond again. I had walked in, my Paati next to me, the cool mud always under my feet, the water at waist level. I hadn’t gone any further, staying at the edges, safe. I think about my mother, wearing this suit, swimming in a large pool, in a foreign land. None of my friends have ever swum before. I have never swum before. A sudden bolt of jealousy sweeps through me. How hard could it be? I think. I’ve seen people swimming in movies, their arms and legs moving in unison, cutting through the water in effortless motion. Squeezing my eyes tight, I try to remember the sequence of their strokes, their movement. I think I have it. Arms first, then kick both legs together. Opening my eyes, I see the cat, now on the well wall, crouched, motionless.
I slide into the tank.
The cool dark waters envelope me, the sounds of the street and crows disappear, and all I can hear is the thrum of the bloodbeat in my ears.
I open my eyes. Sudden burning. I open my mouth. Water floods in.
I can’t remember the strokes. I can’t find my arms. I look up and see the distant square of the afternoon sky, murky, receding.
And then an arm.
Snagging my hair.
Noise. Angry noise. Street and crows.
Face down on the dirt.
Water pouring out of me.