Language Lessons by Meghana Mysore
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is Language Lessons by Meghana Mysore. Meghana is an MFA student in creative writing at Hollins University. Her essay on graduating during the pandemic is included in the anthology A World Out of Reach (Yale University Press) and her essays and stories have been published in The Yale Review and The Rumpus. Her work has received support from the Jackson Center for Creative Writing, the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, and the Tin House Workshop. She is from Portland, Oregon.
This essay was edited by Brooke Obie.
My ajji knitted her way out of pain. I can’t prove this theory about my grandmother; I’ve never quite found the words in Kannada to ask her. But she tells me over the phone about the rhythms, about the joy of consistency when her fingers move through yarn and I imagine the craft like a pied piper, enticing her fingers to unfurl from around her own neck.
My ajji’s life is marked by absences. She’s the eldest of nine siblings—but four of them didn’t survive the cruelty of a country that didn’t or couldn’t provide for its struggling families. When sickness weakened their mother, Ajji cared for her siblings and even their children. She nursed her sister’s baby boy as though he were her own, changing out his diapers and lathering his body in oils and fragrant moisturizers. When that baby grew into a man, and when this man forgot about Ajji, she took it as an indictment against the whole family line. “My best sister abandoned me,” Ajji tells me in Kannada, quickening the pace of her fingers. “Can never trust others to take care of you.”
Ajji’s parents sent her away when she was nine years old because she was growing up too foreign. Kannada is the language of our people, but living in Bhilai, it was Hindi that she learned to speak first, and that wouldn’t do. She was sent to Bangalore to live with her aunt and uncle so she could learn the ancestral tongue, with its harsh twists and turns. But with her mother distant and her father busy with Gandhi’s fight for Indian independence from Britain, she learned that Kannada was not enough to bridge a family that had been scattered. So, she took up silence too.
In 2012, my ajji and my thatha flew from Bangalore to Portland to visit us. I remember Ajji on our couch all day, hunched over her yarn. She would tell me the stories of her childhood that she could bear, and then she’d catch her breath and hold it. She’d close her lips and knit with a focus so precise that the changing sounds of the background—the flushing of the toilet, cutlery clinking against plates—could not reach her. Sometimes, I would make myself a cup of tea and sit beside her, watching her in the unpunctuated silence.
Ajji never sent my mother away in her girlhood; Ajji sent herself away. When the world became too much, she would sleep and sleep the day away, leaving my mother to make phulkaand chai for their guests. Her absence left my mother inside of her own loneliness. And in the silences between Ajji’s soft snores grew my mother’s resentment. It is only now, when Ajjihas returned to India, when her absence on the couch has left behind a piercing hollowness, that my mother turns to me, eyes glistening, and says, “I think I’m starting to know her.”
somewhere in the unknown world
a yellow eyed woman
sits with her daughter
—from “Quilting” by Lucille Clifton
I imagine my mother, eight years old, the quiet cadence of her childhood. In my mind, her long, black hair is in two tight braids, matching her school uniform. She’s coming back home in Delhi to find Ajji sleeping, buried beneath a heavy gray shawl. I see her standing outside Ajji’s bedroom, the darkness from the room spilling out through the door’s slit. My mother watches and waits; waits, for something like a miracle, for her mother to wake. Maybe if she woke, my mother could tell Ajji about the teachers who praised her paintings. Maybe she could paint a sun so bright Ajji would have no choice but to wake and smile. But Ajji does not wake this time, does not ask about her paintings, and the darkness curls around my mother’s feet. She glimpses a ball of yarn at the corner of Ajji’s room, a dot of yellow in the dark, a glinting golden star.
When Ajji visited Portland, I was in the ninth grade and crying frequently. My sister had left for college that year, leaving me stranded. When our parents fought, my sister and I would flee to the living room and dance, spinning ourselves around like characters in Bollywood movies. With her gone, I’d storm up to my room alone and slam the door shut behind me. I’d escape into stories, curled up in my windowsill with pen and paper. Many times, Ajji would drag herself up the stairs, slow and measured, her bones stiff with arthritis. Once she arrived in my room, she’d join me on the windowsill. Sometimes, she brought a plate full of parathas and okra palya, or dal and chapati. I’d tell her that I’m going to be a writer, and she’d nod and feed me as though I were a child. And I would let her feed me, ashamed that she moved her tired fingers for someone like me, someone who had not suffered, not in the ways she had.
Sometimes, we sat wordlessly on the windowsill as she spooned heapfuls of steaming dal into my mouth, and the lentils dissolved on my tongue, staining it yellow. I watched her, her nose ring glinting in the moonlight, her eyes black and hardened, crystallized in time. She would pat me on the head and call me mari; and for a moment, I would feel like one, a baby, doted over, full of the potential to be made new.
My mother tells me that Ajji wanted to be a teacher. In my mother’s youth, Ajji carried a knapsack with her everywhere, even in the house, and one evening a guest remarked to Ajji that she looked like a teacher. My mother says Ajji smiled then more freely than she ever had before.
When she came to stay with us in Portland, Ajji’s skill with knitting won her a teaching contract at Jo-Ann’s craft store. But without a green card, she couldn’t accept it. I’ve never seen Ajii smile the way my mother describes.
Shut up in our separate houses, worlds away, Ajji and I have been talking to each other more. Our shared loneliness and forced isolation have made us neighbors. Maybe it’s the arthritis keeping her from knitting as much as she would like, or maybe it’s the mounting death toll around the world that has her thinking about life. I just know that she speaks to me now with a new urgency.
Her words come in the middle of the night, in a flurry of photos and texts on Whats App, a sudden fury to be known. She asks me to write it all down and I agree.
The first one: Ajji and Thatha’s wedding photo, in black and white. Ajji does not smile but stares ahead at the camera matter-of-factly. Her bindi, round, centers on her forehead, and her hair is parted down the middle. When I look at the photo too long, I can see my mother’s eyes.
The second: Ajji stands in a line with four sisters, occupying the space at the edge of the photo. Ajji is the only one in white, the only one whose arms crisscross over her stomach, whose eyebrows are creased in worry, who looks afraid, as though she aches to be somewhere else, unnamed, but away.
The third: Her aunt and uncle, older, a photo encased in a plastic covering. They smile and the uncle’s hand rests on the aunt’s shoulder. They look kind, and I hope they cared well for my ajji. A stuffed cheetah hangs from the ceiling, and a bottle of hand sanitizer sits on the shelf. I assume the photo hangs in Ajji’s room now, but somehow it seems more like the room of a child, a daughter only now wriggling into the world.
She narrates the trajectory of her life in as much English as she can, and I respond as often as I can in Kannada. We speak imperfectly, struggling to say what we mean to each other, hoping it is enough.
At 22, Ajji wasn’t able to finish her college degree. She married Thatha instead, and in the early years of their marriage, he took what little money they had and gave it away, impulsively. Ajji tried to talk him out of shoveling their life into the ground. He wouldn’t listen, but when her fingers spoke to yarn it would obey.
At 22, my mother was also uprooted by an arranged marriage to my father. She left Delhi in 1991, at the peak of its violence. Tensions were rising between Muslims and Hindus, culminating in the 1992 burning of the mosque at Ayodhya. From the ashes, she built a new home for herself and her new family in Australia. Before she married, my mother painted. My mother has not painted in years.
At 22, I am grounded, stranded back at home, my senior year of college stalled by a pandemic. But I am writing.
In the slow ache of months in lockdown from March to August, I find Mom on the couch, a carbon copy of Ajji, consumed by the musicality of her movements. I bring my cup of tea to the couch and revel in my mother, at work on a craft she was never explicitly taught. A mark of an unspoken inheritance. I want to tell her how I sometimes go back, not to my childhood, but to hers. I want to tell her how things could be different between mothers and daughters. But in silence, revelations come.
“She did the best she could,” Mom said of Ajji one morning. “She did the best she could.”
in the unknown world
the woman threading together her need
and her needle
nods toward the smiling girl
this will keep us warm
I text my mother about Ajji’s late-night stories on WhatsApp. I tell her Ajji’s spoken of her, that she remembers how talented a painter my mother was; that she says my mother is the most talented artist she knows. My mother is silent on the other end for a while before finally texting back: “I can’t stop crying.”
When Ajji shares fragments of her life with me, it breaks me in ways that cannot be expressed in either Kannada or English. So, on our calls, we share a weighted silence. I ask her how she is, she answers, and then a nothingness fills the air. I ask her what Kannada serial she watches, and she answers, then silence resounds. I hear Thatha’s voice from the other room, reminding her she has to take a shot of insulin before dinner. “Thatha is helping me very much,” she says. “But it is my body, no? I have to suffer.” Silence.
In the absence of words, I see Ajji and me at my windowsill, tasting cumin seeds, smelling the tang of dal. I can hear her tell me in Kannada, “Eat this, rajkumari. Eat it so you will be strong.” I see her string the final stitch into a sweater she’s made for me. “This will keep you warm,” she says. I hold my pen like Ajji’s needle and weave our silent memories onto the page.
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