Excerpt

Latitudes of Longing

Shubhangi Swarup

May 21, 2020 
The following is excerpted from Shubhangi Swarup's debut novel, Latitudes of Longing, a bestseller soon after its release in India. It won the Tata Literature Live! Award for debut fiction, was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Indian Literature, and longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020 and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Swarup lives in Mumbai.

The month of May would be marked in the history of the Karen settlement in the Andamans. No one would remember the exact date, except that it was a suffocatingly hot morning when Rose Mary was born. The last in a line of nine children, she was also the first child to be born in the Karen villages. The pastor proclaimed, “She has turned this settlement into home. The Lord speaks to us with the glory of her birth.”

Rose Mary, the auspicious one, spent her childhood working on farms, attending classes in the church shed, tending to poultry, cleaning the house, and washing up. The Karens were at the frontier of the war against nature, and she was a child soldier.

Rose Mary’s father would take her along on fishing trips to collect sea worms as bait. He instilled in her the patience, skill, and intuition needed to appreciate one’s own company. She discovered the most efficient way of consuming the solitude accorded to all life forms early. She began with the marshes in low tide, catching mudskippers in her dress for her mother to pickle. She cut her hair short to avoid getting it stuck in shells and spikes when she dove in to collect edible mollusks. It gave her a sense of purpose, bringing home something to eat. When her father failed to catch bigger things, her mother couldn’t forage, and her siblings chased the pleasant breeze, the mudskippers would come to the rescue. By the age of ten, Rose Mary had begun to steal her father’s fishing rod and bidis at nights, while the rest of them slept. With only bats, owls, and the moon’s rippling reflection in the waters to keep her company, Rose Mary would patiently wait for the subtle tug on her rope, smoking the occasional bidi like her father did. By the age of eleven, she had caught her first barracuda and learned to smoke without coughing.

As promising as her skills were, Rose Mary could fish only on the shore. The deep sea of bigger catches was male territory. She could only dream of slicing through the surf in a khlee—her very own canoe—and burying her harpoon in a fish’s heart bigger than her own. Words gave her a headache, so she dropped out of school and de- voted herself to fishing and hunting. By the time her body had begun to soften at the angles, centipedes—the local harbingers of misfortune—had bitten her three times already.

“When animals bite, it hurts,” her mother consoled her as Rose Mary sat doubled up, hugging her knees to ride through the storm of pain.

“What about humans?” the girl asked. “What happens when they bite?”

“They don’t. Not if they believe in Christ.”

Her mother’s words had upset her more than the centipedes did. The venomous snakes, the bone-crushing crocodiles, and the strangling creepers, were they not creatures of god too? In the unconditional kiss of a leech, the night-colored bruises left on her skin by the jungle, and a sea urchin’s spines lived the will of a god very different from the Christ on her mother’s locket. A god whose worshippers had the freedom to bite and hurt without guilt.

*

As the work grew, so did the workforce. To fuel the enterprise of converting unruly forests into sophisticated logs, the empire brought in boatloads of the unemployed from Burma and India.

Rose Mary was thirteen when the Burman boy arrived on her shores, like driftwood left behind by the tide. The village was a burgeoning family of unrelated members and unacknowledged relationships. It would take almost a year for the two to speak.

The Burman, along with five other men, had caught a human-sized grouper. Too heavy to lift, the fish was left to trail behind the boat in the net until they reached the shore. As the victorious men lugged the giant into the village, the walk turned into a procession. The drunks shouted slogans for higher wages, and the women demanded a community feast. The Burman boy, barely seventeen, had turned into a local celebrity.

The grouper was almost seven feet long and weighed more than three hundred kilograms. Resting in a timber shed for all to see, it was a myth sprawled out against the shoddiness of their lives.

Rose Mary pushed her way to the front of the crowd to have a closer look. It was difficult to imagine the Goliath swimming swiftly in the water. Instead, Rose Mary imagined it sinking to the bottom like a shipwreck. Its opaque blue eyes seemed fashioned from the color of the sea itself. Rose Mary imagined the giant surveying the ocean floor with its bulging eyes. Unmoved. Unmoving. Its belly was as high as her waist. Its mouth, as wide as its stout body, protected by fleshy lips. She gazed into its final gasp for water, its exposed, bloodied gills. She raised a hand to touch it. Her fingers sank into its torso, the texture and color of moss. A faint vibration ran through the flesh. She pulled her hand back immediately.

“Be careful,” the Burman said. “You’d fit into his mouth quite easily.”

Rose Mary felt slighted. Not only was she not allowed to fish in the deep, but even luck seemed to favor men, especially unskilled foreign boys trained in mere ponds and rivers.

“I can carry what I catch,” she replied. “I don’t need the whole village to hold it up.”

“If I showed up in your net,” he asked, “would you carry me too?”

“I cook everything I catch,” said Rose Mary, surprising herself.

*

The men sold the grouper to a visiting Englishman for a grand sum of twenty-five rupees. For the next month, the Burman skipped work to drown himself in toddy. But it was hunger, not thirst, that he felt most acutely. He yearned for a meal cooked especially for him. He didn’t care if it was made with love or disgust.

One afternoon, he found Rose Mary wading among the corals, alone.

“Careful,” he shouted. “You’ll cut your feet.”

Rose Mary went on with the business of collecting seaweed in her basket. He sat down on the beach, determined to talk even if she wouldn’t. The afternoon, like the toddy, had overwhelmed him. He was afraid he would evaporate like sweat into the air and no one would notice. He mumbled away to prevent himself from disappearing.

Rose Mary stomped out of the water in oversized jungle boots. The Burman was impressed.

“Where did you get them?” he asked. “Did you rob an English sahib?”

“I don’t rob dead people.” He laughed.

It was a long beach, and Rose Mary wondered why she had chosen to walk toward the boy when they were surrounded by wilderness. She rolled up her longyi and removed her boots. She wiped her legs with her bare hands, oblivious to his gaze, stronger than the sun’s. She began to sort the seaweed.

“Do you know what I found when I cut open that grouper?” he asked.

“No.”

“Inside its belly . . .” The Burman looked at her, searching for a way to bring it all—the approaching waves, his receding consciousness, and her industrious fingers braiding the seaweed—to a standstill. “Inside its belly I found an octopus . . .”

Rose Mary turned to him as her hands continued with the chore. “. . . holding in its tentacles a crab.”

She stopped to think. Encouraged by the sight of her hands at rest, the Burman straightened up.

“How can that happen?” she asked.

Rose Mary saw his eyes well up. They too bulged like the grouper’s. Unlike the grouper’s deep-sea color, though, his eyes were a flash of red. The wind had changed, carrying his stench of rotten coconuts to her.

“I don’t know how it happened,” he replied. “But I’m afraid that I may end up in someone’s belly too.”

She smiled and returned to her basket. “Do you know how groupers hunt?”

“No.”

“They suck their prey in with their lips. They have no teeth.”

“Then how do they chew?”

“They don’t. They swallow it whole.”

The grouper was like her grandmother, then. Rose Mary laughed at the thought.

“You don’t believe me?”

“No.”

“So powerful is a grouper’s ability to suck that when it takes in water from its gills, a small whirlpool is created on the surface. I have seen it with my own eyes. That is how we tracked it down.”

That night, Rose Mary dreamed of being sucked into a whirlpool.

Two months later, when the Burman asked her parents for permission to marry her, they refused. The reasons were obvious.

Not only did he belong to the lowly, unscrupulous, and lazy lot of Buddhists, he had no family to speak of on the islands.

So they eloped to a nearby village called Webi. She was only fourteen. Too young to have experienced love or desire, she would later think. In fact, she was horrified when she saw him naked for the first time. Under their clothes, men were no different from dogs, elephants, and horses.

She hadn’t been unhappy in her parents’ home. She had given up on school after the fifth grade and spent all her time fishing. The first-born of the Karens, she also had a special place in the heart of the pastor, the most influential man among the Karens.

Seen from the eyes of an aging woman, the fourteen-year-old’s actions made no sense, in the logical way her habit of killing centipedes did. She would attack them at first sight. She would go out of her way to kill them, smoking them out, putting herself in danger. In her attempts, she was even bitten. What drove her to kill them indiscriminately? Surely, it wasn’t fear. Fear drove people away from centipedes, not closer to them.

Vengeance, she realized in her later years, was a powerful thing.

The runaway couple found a patch of wilderness to cultivate. For shelter, they built a thatched shed on stilts. The Burman would look for odd jobs and Rose Mary would work on the farm.

In 1942, an earthquake arrived. So powerful, it turned day into night with dust. When the dust settled, the Japanese had replaced the British rulers. So long as the locals constructed and cultivated for the imperialists, they were left in peace. But when a cyclone destroyed the harvest, all hell broke loose. Like the elephants, the Japanese thrived on greenery—a diet of sweet potatoes, catfish, and snails made them constipated. So all the  men  were  forced  to  work  in the fields to step up cultivation. While the Karens were left alone, the Burmese were persecuted after a group was caught stealing from the warehouse. Riffraff like Rose Mary’s husband were picked up and beaten to the rhythm of imperial slogans. They were asked to repeat them. If they couldn’t, they were beaten again.

The island seemed to be closing in on the Burman. He stopped working and started drinking at home instead. One night, he demanded catfish for dinner. When he didn’t find nappi—pickle—on the plate, he beat Rose Mary.

She was stunned. That men beat women was not a surprise to her. The worth of a man, her grandmother would often say, was judged by his ability to hunt, build a roof, and beat his wife. Sooner or later, Rose Mary was prepared for a slap or a kick. What shocked her was his strength. Where did it come from, she wondered, in this listless man who spent his days inebriated?

With each beating, he would leave behind something new on her body. An imprint of his teeth below her collarbone, like a dis- placed string of pearls. A bruise on her hip, placed aesthetically like a flower. Scratches on her cheek and neck, as if she’d been grazed by a palm frond. And the Japanese slogans—the only time he spoke to her in that language was when he beat her, shouting out imperial slogans.

One morning, as she stood in a queue to hand over produce to the Japanese army, the woman in front of her noticed the scratches on her neck.

“Does your husband hit you?” she asked. Rose Mary nodded. “So does mine.”

“I thought only Burmese men did. You are from India.”

“All men do. English, Indian, Burmese, Siamese, even these Japanese ones.”

“What about the naked people?” Rose Mary asked about the island’s native tribes.

“They don’t. Beating a woman is a sign of civilization, like wearing clothes.”

Rose Mary mulled it over as she stood in the queue. She asked, “Does your husband shout in Japanese when he hits you?”

The woman laughed. “No,” she replied. “He is a freedom fighter. He curses me in Hindi.”

Rose Mary smiled. So clear and repetitive was the Burman’s Japanese, she had learned it too. Hakko ichiu. Hakko! Ichiu! The sounds were alive in her head. They were the rhythm to his blows. Without them, the beating felt incomplete. Standing in the queue, Rose Mary chanted the words like a nursery rhyme.

When her turn came, she hesitantly placed one papaya and one cabbage on the officer’s table. It was all they had to spare. He looked up at Rose Mary. Without a common language, he could only convey his displeasure by frowning.

She was afraid. “Hakko ichiu,” she whispered. The only words of Japanese that she knew. Eight corners under one roof.

The officer smiled.

One night, the Burman lay unconscious on the bamboo steps that led to their home. He had guzzled down toddy for three whole days, until he lost all strength to leave or enter. He lay on the steps like an offering to the lords of the night—the mosquitoes.

Rose Mary tried to wake him. When he didn’t respond, she sat down next to him. Such an innocent face, she thought as she admired his features. One day, she hoped to have a son who looked like him. She rested her head next to his. She played with his stubble, newly sprouted on his cheeks. She took a long strand of her own hair and tickled his nostril. He didn’t budge. Not only his breath but even his clothes reeked of toddy. She sat there, inhaling the fumes. She pinched his cheeks playfully.

Then she slapped him. The Burman opened his eyes in a flash but slipped back into unconsciousness just as quickly. Strange, thought Rose Mary. Though she had slapped him hard, a faint redness was all that was left behind. How hard did one have to hit someone to leave a bruise? She punched his face to find out. The Burman raised his head, disoriented by the pain. Rose Mary pushed it back down. She patted his head.

“Come back, O wandering soul,” she sang to him, as Karen mothers would to wailing infants.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup. Copyright © 2018 by Shubhangi Swarup. Excerpted by permission of One World, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




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