Mama says I was born forty days too early. There was no doctor to help, since women from our clan do not get doctors, only a midwife. The midwife taught Mama how to hold me. Like this, she showed her, like you’re holding a dollop of wet clay. Careful, he must not lose shape. Once Mama had learnt how to keep me alive, the midwife, in exchange for a silver coin and a box of saffron, gave her the formula for an important concoction – one that would help build my semi-formed head, hands and legs. Brew all the ingredients in a copper vessel exactly at dawn, she instructed Mama. Pour one-third of it into this little one’s mouth, in small sips lest he choke, and let the rest sit at the east-facing window for six hours, absorbing sunlight. Slather the golden goop on the baby at noon, before his bath. Do this every day for forty days.
So, my Mama, she who is a half-witch, got to work. She blended two cups of spring water with two spoons of fresh honey, two cubes of pink pepper, and the clipped wings of two dragonflies, every morning for forty mornings, a prayer to Mother Nature always on her lips. One-third of her miracle potion would go into my belly, and the rest would seep from my skin into my bones. Slowly, a nose appeared above my mouth, my heart hardened, my feet sprouted toes. I concretized. Except for my ears that were yet to form, I became a human whole.
I was four years old when our saahib’s son noticed that my ears were malformed.
We had been playing on the terrace of my house with a kite. Since his father owned the tomato fields that my Mama tilled and toiled on, he had been the one flying the kite, while I had stood dutifully behind him with the spool of thread, enabling his flight. After he’d tugged at the thread for an hour, his tired arms couldn’t hold up any more, and so, he offered to transfer ownership of the glass-laced pink string to my hands. Standing right behind my head, he caught a glimpse of my ears up-close for the first time. “Demon-child!” he screamed, then burst into cackles of laughter. “Those cannot be the ears of a human. You are a demon-child!”
He flung the spool at the terrace floor. He sprinted down the stairs and ran in the direction of the fields, screaming the demon-child theory at the top of his lungs. He met a few dozen elders en route, and the school headmaster, and some of our classmates. He told all of them. From her kitchen window, my Mama – she who is a half-witch – heard his proclamations. She wasn’t particularly surprised; this moment had been long overdue.
Mama got to work. She filled an earthen pot with five cups of goat’s milk and added to it some yellow sugar, a spoonful of her tears, and a handful of bark scraped off the gooseberry tree. She poured the drink into small glasses, offering one to each of the curious villagers who visited our home demanding to see my ears. When they bid us goodbye, all memory of my supposed demon-child status was erased from their minds. Nobody teased me about my misshapen ears ever after – not even the halfwit who’d discovered them.
At nine, I got into my first fight.
It happened in the empty tin shed on the outskirts of the village. My friends and I had assembled to trade marbles. Mhahn, who had a set of six white ones, wanted to trade two of them for some of Rhooc’s transparent beauties. Rhooc didn’t agree. My glass marbles resemble our planet, he said to Mhahn. They’re gorgeous. I’m not selling them cheap. Look at the bright green streak inside this one! Doesn’t it look like a bridge over the ocean? Sure does, replied Mhahn, but if your marbles are the Earth, mine are galaxies. Look at the thick strokes of grey and ivory inside this one. So dense with stars, it could be the Milky Way!
They continued to argue. Each wanted to give less and take more. Their altercation grew louder, hotter. I would have left without intervening but they roped me in. Tell Rhooc he is being unreasonable here, Mhahn ordered. Don’t you think I should get at least two of his white marbles in exchange for my four, Rhooc countered. Conditioned by my Mama to always play fair, I sided with Rhooc. Mhahn’s marbles are not pretty, I declared. They’re plain. If he wants four of Rhooc’s, he should be willing to trade not two but three of his milky-whites.
Rhooc raised his arms in triumph and did a little dance.
Ten minutes later, once Rhooc completed the exchange and left, Mhahn – his pocket much lighter now than when he’d arrived – shot me a piercing glare. Before I could swerve, he slammed a fist into my right eye. I staggered and collapsed. He grinned at me awhile, then stomped away. I remained splayed on the floor until my vision cleared enough to take me home.
When Mama glimpsed the perimeter of purple around my eye, she asked no questions. As a proficient half-witch, she got to work. In a bowl of glycerine, she melted half an enchanted thread. To that she added two spoons of blue ash and a pinch of crystal dust. Once the ingredients had melded, Mama applied the paste – which sparkled brighter than all of Mhahn’s and Rhooc’s marbles combined – to my injured eye, in slow, gentle strokes.
When I awoke the next morning, the purple patch had faded. My eye was good as new.
I never met Mhahn or Rhooc again.
A month after I turned fourteen, I (was) kissed (by) a boy for the first time.
We were tracing our way home from school. For three days, angry clouds had poured endless, inky rain. The fields and streets were submerged. It was late afternoon but dark enough to pass for early night. Phuln and I were wading through a by-lane, holding hands. The usual patch of road that connected our school to the village had gone down under, so this was an alternative route. Unsure of where we were treading and afraid of sliding into a ditch, we stayed close, eventually wrapping our arms around each other’s waist for a secure grip.
A noisy bolt of lightning struck every few minutes, startling us but briefly illuminating the path. We soldiered on, under the thundering slate-grey sky, aided by those fleeting flashes of light. Never before in our short lives had we been so completely at the mercy of the elements. Teenagers, we were the size of grown men but nervous as lost children. We wanted to get back home quick, without breaking a limb or meeting a snake or being ambushed by evil spirits.
After two long hours of trudging through unknown terrain, we finally reached the tomato fields near my house. We recognized the scarecrow with the red turban – that is how we knew we had finally arrived. Enormously relieved but drained of the life force that had propelled us thus far, we stopped behind the banyan tree to catch our breath.
Panting, we gazed awhile at the leaky horizons. When our lungs and limbs felt lighter, we turned to look each other in the eyes. That is when I felt it – a surge of affection in my chest, coupled with a fervid desire to kiss the trickles of rain off Phuln’s lips.
We stood there for god knows how long – embracing, entwined, exhilarated.
When I reached home, Mama welcomed me with a mysterious smile. The half-witch that she is, she had intuited that I’d done something wild. But it wasn’t like her to interrogate me, least of all when I was drenched to the bones. So, she got to work. In a tumbler she blended half a cup of moonlight with four orchids, a handful of sage leaves, and a tiny emerald. Massage this potion into your scalp, she instructed me. Let its miracle seep into your mind overnight.
I did as directed.
Something in that concoction cleansed my thoughts of shame. The next day, when I ran into Phuln in the fields, I felt no fear in locking lips with him, only goose pimples.
I made it to eighteen before I was called a thatoot in full public view.
Phuln and I were at the village fair. It was a crisp November evening, replete with scents of confectionery, the sweet cacophony of giggling children, and whispered love notes of young couples. A Ferris wheel stood towering in one corner, decked up in fairy lights, flanked by a dazzling carousel to the left and a giant trampoline to the right. On the opposite side, food vendors had stationed their wagons. They were vending happiness today – stuffed breads, buttery biscuits, hot fritters, cotton candy in pastel shades. Phuln dragged me to the popsicle cart. Let’s get different colours, he gushed, squeezing my hand. Then, we can pose at the photo booth and stick our tongues out, like we did as kids. How about green for me and yellow for you?
Laughing, we ambled over to the photo booth, sucking on our popsicles, occasionally stealing a lick off each other’s. Our arms locked, our eyes danced. Our hearts were full, brimming over. We were in a private bubble, insulated from the stares of the people around – people who, unknown to us, were finding our indulgences offensive.
One of them approached us when we were leaving the photo booth. Phuln held in his hand a sheet of glossy paper with our faces plastered on it. Wow, what a pretty pair of thatoots, the man sneered. Got yourselves a picture for proof, eh? Not like you need it. Anybody can tell you’re pansies. Filthy bastards. What do you need a photo for anyway, eh?!
We knew better than to challenge a hateful bigot. We started walking away, but he wasn’t done. He reached for the picture. In one quick move he grabbed it from Phuln’s hand, and before we could take it back, he ripped it to shreds. There, he cackled, flinging the shreds to the ground. Lick the pieces into shape, maybe? All that practice with popsicles will help!
He spat on the photo bits, over and over, thoo-thoo-thoo-ing until we were sufficiently defiled, then marched off. I stared at his receding back, at the visible nape of his neck. My fingers trembled. Heat rose to my temples. How I’d have loved to shove a dagger in his flesh. Oh, how I’d have loved to return him to his maker.
When Phuln and I got home, Mama was waiting with a sumptuous dinner. There was jasmine rice and lentil curry, both of which we love, but there was also a bright, purple-coloured soup. One of my special brews, Mama smiled. It contains lemon zest and wild mushrooms and lavender flowers and a pearl. The perfect balm to heal your bleeding souls.
Knowing that Mama is a half-witch, we obeyed her and drank. Over the next few hours, the broken slices of our hearts found each other and came together. The wounds of humiliation scabbed and fell off. Pride swam into our veins, and took its rightful place. We wouldn’t let anybody abrade us hereafter.
On my twenty-first birthday, Mama told me I should start preparing to fly away.
The year was 2022 AD. Our country was rapidly regressing into medieval methods of social governance. Our village had newly appointed a culture preservation committee. They were going door-to-door, checking for sinners, seeking to reform the debased. Is there a heretic in this house, they asked at every door. Someone who refuses to pray? Someone who smokes grass or practises magic? Someone who has taken a lover of the same sex?
When they arrived at our door that day, Mama wore her plainest clothes and stripped herself of all signs of occult. To the men she appeared a meek widow, pious and powerless. They asked her just one question: what does your son do? He is a man of the fields, she replied sincerely. He uses his hands to turn the mud and scatter seeds and nurture saplings until they sprout blood-red fruit. He builds barns, and chases mice and geese. That is what my son does – he milks the soil. I pray, he ploughs, Mother Earth provides.
The committee men nodded respectfully. They did not ask to see me. On their way out, they gave Mama a little salute.
Once they were gone, Mama sat me down. You have to leave, she repeated. Even as a half-witch, I am ultimately mortal. I cannot protect you forever. At some point, Phuln and you will want to build your own nest. You cannot do it here. These people will come for your heads. You must go someplace where your love will be permitted, and celebrated. In order to do that, you must first learn to fly.
But, Mama, I said, how is that even possible?
I have figured out the recipe, she whispered. After months of trying, I have finally decocted the elixir that will help you escape. It took you forty days to go from shapeless infant to able-bodied human; it will now take you forty days to go from human to able-bodied bird. We have to start today.
I watched as Mama poured three glasses of rose water into an earthen pot. She added a storm cloud and two peacock feathers. Then, she opened our window and grabbed at the sky. With one quick swoop, she plucked the North Star and dropped it into the mix. The liquid in the pot, already simmering, rose like an angry ocean to the brim.
Here, Mama said, handing me a cupful. We have enough to fill forty cups. You must have one every night. Do not miss a single dose.
I followed Mama’s prescription for forty nights.
On the forty-first morning, I awoke a mythical beast, part-avian. My arms had been replaced by a pair of fine, long-feathered wings. My neck had thickened. My vision was keener. I felt simultaneously stronger and lighter.
My Mama – she who is a half-witch – gifted me a new birth.
I went up to her and fell at her feet. We hugged, sobbed. She tied an amulet around my wrist. This will be your compass, she said, to bring you home whenever you feel like visiting.
When dusk fell, I unfurled my wings and flew. With Phuln seated on my back, his soft hands wrapped tenderly around my neck, I flew. Together, we traversed the expanse of the village, flying over the tomato fields and Mhahn’s farmhouse and Rhooc’s family stables and the village school and innumerable cows and pigs and scarecrows. With every flying minute, my body grew in might. We soared so high, land and people fell out of sight. The sky turned pitch-black but the moon was our guide and the stars our allies. Unfettered and hopeful, we surrendered to the cosmos. That which had created us would help us – two men in need of a miracle – find a new home.