The first breasts I ever saw were my Aunt’s. We were bathing in the pond and walking out of the water to soap ourselves. She carefully undraped the mundu that she was wearing to re-tie it tighter before she could go for her swim. I looked at my flaccid chest and wondered about things I still could not decipher, no longer flaccid.
I still believe Amma got married to Acha to enjoy swimming in the ponds surrounding my grandmother’s place. That was a small house isolated from the world but surrounded by mango trees and three ponds. No wonder my grandfather moved there after marriage. And, when all his three sons were married off to swimming wives, the women followed a tradition - they would all go for a swim together, laugh and play in the water, and then leave with red eyes to the temple to pray.
The green pond used to scare me. When I was at an age where Amma bathed me, I would accompany these women including my Chechi - who was six years older than me - and watch them bathe. The gushing of the water and the occasional slithering of a water snake scared me. I would dip my feet in the green water and watch the fishes come to sniff my feet. But I envied Chechi. She could dive in and pop up at another end of the pond with water flowing out of her face holes.
And, then there was A. A and I grew up together, she was just a month younger than me. She was the prodigal daughter of the whole family and the one everyone wanted me to be. She would sit beside me to watch this show and all I wanted to do was push her into the pond. I always found her to be the annoying sibling but I still loved her like my own. We loved each other in spaces where we did not exist together.
One summer when Amma and Acha left me in Kerala for their sanity, my mischievous Aunt decided to torture me. She pulled me onto her lap, massaged my hair with oil, and carried me to the pond. There, she dropped me into the water as she removed her clothes. I was struggling to find space to stand even though it was summer and the water would reach my chest if I stood. She yelled “Aryu, just beat your legs and you’ll be fine” I somehow did beat my legs hard enough to be able to float, but the pain of water lodged in my nostrils made me give up. My Aunt lovingly took me in her arms and caressed my face until I came back to life. That did not stop me from joining these daily baths.
Summer mornings are the best time to immerse yourself in the water. A and I would strip ourselves naked and plunge into the water. She would swim around in circles while I dove to tickle her underwater. Chechi would be washing her clothes next to my aunt. Aunt told us that she was a big girl now and she needed to wash her own clothes. Chechi couldn’t strip herself naked, she would wrap herself in a white towel before she went for her swim. I always wondered why this happened only to realise that Chechi had grown what my Aunt did too - breasts.
I remember that one instance when Amma called Chechi to her room and locked the door. Amma held a packet with a half-naked lady on it and asked her to start wearing this new thing. Chechi would complain about feeling suffocated like some plastic hands holding her chest. I never quite understood the reason until the day I saw her mundu fall. My Aunt told her to tie that thing even tighter. At that point, I realised I did not want boobs at all. I just wanted to swim free without it.
Chechi would slowly dip herself, go for a swim and leave. It was just my Aunt and us. As we grew up, my aunt would talk to us more. She would recite O.N.V Kurupu’s poems or even play Anthakshari with my sister as we bathed. Once, she joined us for the bath, dove to the bed, and found a chapati rock. She held it between her two fingers and threw it onto the surface. The rock skipped five times and plopped back below. I thought she was a magician but soon she taught us to skip stones. Chechi, A and I would collect rocks before going for a bath so we could skip them until I threw one right at A’s eye while trying to skip it.
The pond was never quiet. When we would leave after our bath, the snake would come out with his head popped up for his swim. The turtle would walk up the shore to eat the moss and kingfishers would slowly dive to grab fishes that once ate my feet. It was their home that we women enjoyed the most.
As summers grew hotter, the pond grew smaller. Once, before my Aunt could shake the water to let its owners know that we were visiting, the snake crept its way around the pond. He wasn’t scared. He was swimming in circles and would stop and look at us women. What a pervy snake! The snake always had to greet us. He would wait for the women to oil their hair and walk towards the steps of the pond. As we removed our clothes, he would stick his head out. Our naked bodies excited him and his tongue would slither out of his mouth. He kept doing that every time we showed up.
A month later, the pond was cleaned and the pervy snake was taken somewhere else. By then, I was growing in places I thought never grew up. I could no longer dip my naked body into the water and my Aunt gave me my first mundu. She tore a piece from her husband’s red mundu and wrapped it around my body. She would tuck the end at the top so it stayed but after two minutes of jumping and swimming the mundu reached the shore. She would tie it again and it would glide off my body and wander off onto the water's surface. She always insisted on it being tied. I always felt like the mundu never belonged to my body. It was holding me in places I never thought needed to be held and covered.
The mundu was always considered to be the rite of passage for every woman in my family. But I never wanted my breasts to be held by my uncle’s old mundu. It slipped away from my body the second I dove into the pond. It took away the power my legs had as I beat them to swim. I was never allowed to be naked anymore.
It seemed as if women were scared to be naked around each other. Perhaps it was difficult to accept that breasts are more than just instruments that convert blood to milk, or beyond the cleavage that men stare at from distances unknown. I loved that my body was growing in places. My chests jiggled and my bum had more roundness but the mundu never allowed me to embrace the wetness of it. And, the pond grew into a distant place every time I bled.
Every time my periods started, I was shunned from everything the house held, I was no longer a woman or a family member. These practices made me hate being a woman so much that I never understood how beautiful the experience of being a woman truly is.
Until, one day I was on the second day of my period and wanted the comfort of the water over my stomach. When my Aunt was away, I dove into the pond without anything over my body and felt every pulsating whoosh of the water. It gushed over all parts of my body that were aching and I immediately felt all sorts of oohs and aahs. When the old blood tissues escaped my vagina, fishes would gather, trying to eat the small bits and pieces that floated around. The pond was my resurrection to womanhood.
But, I felt alone. The snake, the turtles, and the fishes made noises of their own but they weren’t like the sounds of other women that echoed in my ears. I felt lonely and unwanted.
We all grew up and grew older. New bathrooms were fitted by the side of the house and the water level rose. The women never went together to the pond. The stones were left unattended by unwashed chaddis and the pervy snake died a tragic death. Even if we decided to go for a swim, we never went there together.
I stand on the gravel steps looking at the green pond that changes colour every time you scoop the water. I don’t have anyone to tie my mundu and so I take the longest one and wrap myself as tightly as possible. I float on my back and watch the blue kingfisher look at my teasing breasts. ‘Perverted animals’ I think as I turn my back to swim. The mundu unties itself and winds around my legs. It ties my ankles like weighted anklets. There is no ground for me to hold and I can hear the snake laugh from its hole. I breathe in and breathe out water. I hear the water breathe into my ears. The sunlight fades as my head drops further below. The green water is black now but from a distance, I hear “Aryu, beat your legs and you’ll be fine” and so I did. I moved closer and closer to the sound and reached the surface. I open my watered eyes to no one as I breathe the pond out.
നാകാൊ നേലിെിെന േകാനാരായണൻ കോു േപായ് (4 legged Nangeli woman was kidnapped by Kolu Narayanan)
(The four legged Nangeli frog (Nangeli is often referred to as Nangeli who belonged to the Ezhava community) was kidnapped by Narayanan Snake)