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Volume 7

Outside: Looking In - January 2011


Written by
Amita Rao

Amita spends her days trying to balance her two career interests: helping talented people develop their potential and creating stories that cling to people. She has success with one more than the other. Currently located in New York City, she works as a Recruitment Manager for an international nonprofit, and often mulls on the merits of moving to NJ with her demon cat McGonagall to escape the chaos. In other lifetimes, Amita has lived in Atlanta, India and Kuwait. Atlanta still holds her heart to date. With a Bachelor’s in English and Economics, and currently wrapping up a Master’s in Organizational Development, Amita often contemplates the benefits of becoming a hermit writer. Along with writing creative non-fiction and performance poetry, her interests include traveling, DIY projects, baking mini-desserts and reading trashy romance novels.


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I question the present, but never the past. The past has been carved into my body, half completed, half undone, partially destroyed, partially worn like the old stone temples of Belur, Halebeed and Hampi. Carved in the time of kings and wars, these homages to the past still stand, quietly humming the history they witnessed for those willing to listen.


The thin, wiry man with the easy smile that my cousin brother had commissioned walks up to a set of stone columns. The musical pillars of Hampi, he intones, such perfectly pitched stones, used to spill forth symphonies of beating tablas and raagas. Now, after years of wear, the Indian government has decreed that these pillars will no longer be allowed to sing so their perfection may be maintained for the next generation of tourists. The tour guide moves on to another part of the temple, to another carving on its body, to another ruin, educating me on my own history. But, my mind is still stuck on the forced silence of the temple’s song.


“Ammu, why do you scream when someone accidentally brushes past you while you’re sleeping?”

The poori half-way to my mouth, I freeze, staring across the table at my father’s younger brother’s wife, my Chickamma. I sit at her table for breakfast towards the end of my two month long visit to India after a six year hiatus.

As Chickamma speaks, she looks across the kitchen table, where her 21-year-old daughter is cutting up vegetables for lunch. I take the opportunity to shove the poori into my mouth and chew fastidiously, staring at my poori and potato baaji laden steel breakfast plate. As I chew, I silently pray. I pray she moves on to another topic. I pray she pursues her line of questioning. I pray I know what to say in both instances.

Chickamma continues over my head, speaking to her daughter, “I went to see if she still had a temperature this morning but the minute I touched her forehead, she woke up screaming. Ay-yo! I got so scared that I patted her back to sleep.”

Illa amma. Illa. Yenu aglilla. Malgu. No, sweetie, no. Nothing has happened. Sleep.

Pausing the see-saw of the knife, my cousin, just four years younger than I, picks up the story from there; her quick smile reminds me of my own, but her eyes, with unquestioning trust always brimming from them, remind me of the person I never was.

“Hunh, Amma! She wakes up so quickly if someone touches her while she’s sleeping.” Deepa gestures excitedly with the knife she held in her hand, “Last night, I went into the room and saw that her lengha had ridden up while she was sleeping. When I tried to cover her up with a blanket, she woke up so suddenly.”

Yenu illa, Akka, yenu illa. Malgu. It’s nothing, big sister, it’s nothing. Sleep.

The conversation passed over my head again, Chickamma picking up where her daughter left off.  “And the other night, when she was sleeping next to you on the floor, I was crossing over both of you to get to the cupboard when I stepped on her. I step over you sleeping kids all the time and you don’t wake up! But this one—she sat up like something had bitten her,” Chickamma exclaimed. “When I was coming back, I was so careful that time.”

In the middle of listening to the re-telling of my own story, I had taken my attention off my breakfast, allowing my gaze to fall on Chickamma. Unexpectedly, she caught my eyes and held my gaze. “Why, Ammu? Why do you scream like that when someone touches you while you are sleeping?”

The questions poured over me, swift, inexorable, water rushing to meet air at the waterfall’s edge. “Did something happen in America? Tell me, Ammu. Did something happen?” Her eyes pierced through me, expecting answers to questions the family had previously ignored for fear of the answers.

Yenu illa, Chickamma. Yenu aglilla. It’s nothing, Chickamma. Nothing has happened.

As I held her eyes, those thoughts grabbed me by my throat and shook me. Say it, say it they chanted. To protect her, to protect all of them, I instinctively tried to keep up the façade.

But, I didn’t.  I couldn’t. Many things I might deny, but not this.

Once again staring at my breakfast plate, I said, “Adu haagey, Chickamma, adu haagey.” It’s just that way, Chickamma. It’s just that way. It wasn’t a denial, but neither was it the battle-cry of truth.


Months later, when I am cocooned once more in my apartment in NYC, away from that kitchen table and on my own couch, I am on the phone with my mother.  With darkness pressed against the other side of the window, I see my reflection in the window panel opposite me. The woman in it stares back at me, phone pressed to her ear, eyes guarded. “So, Pappa’s visiting India?” I query, making an attempt at being casual and failing.

I am haunted: the eyes in the window’s reflection morph into my cousin’s. The trust in her eyes leaches, overflows with pain, reflects betrayal and then turns accusatory, blaming me for my silence. Like our smiles so easily echoing each other’s, I fear my eyes becoming hers.

Amma hears what I don’t say and tells me that she had called Chickamma, to tell her to be careful, to watch over another girl. Clutching the phone desperately to my ear, I ask, “And? What did she say?”

My mother’s words finally allow me to escape the blame in my own eyes and breathe.

“Chickamma asked me ‘Why? You think he’ll do what he did to Ammu?’”

I am transported back to the middle of the silence of the old temple. The soft pads of my bare feet press into the carpet now, but feel the rough texture of the granite temple floor. My fingers trace the air, the smoothness of the carved statues, the roughness of the edges, the bumps, the dips, all retained just below the surface of my fingertips. The surface of the stone carvings they had caressed months ago live in my skin’s memory, existing alongside the memory of other touches, ones that never should have taken place, jagged wounds carved into my body, never to be undone.

Even with the enforced silence, these temples of old still stand, telling their story, if only one wanted to listen.




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