When I was five, my mother read me the story of the fire girl. The fire girl's name was Draupadi, and when she stepped out of the flames, she was already a grown woman. Fire molded her limbs and left imprints as it crisscrossed through her still pliant, unblemished skin and burned into shape the ridges and furrows that became her eyes, nose, hands, and feet.
Draupadi's hair was thick as smoke. It was unruly and the color of soot. I imagined the hair framed her face unevenly because she neither braided it with ribbons or garlands nor tamed it with pins and clips. My copy of the Mahabharata said that Draupadi's skin was the color of dark chocolate but tinted and flecked as if with gold. I understood it to mean that fire always left traces.
But didn't the flames hurt when Draupadi stepped out of them? I asked my mother. I knew from experience that fire hurt. Just on my last birthday, when I'd leaned forward over the chocolate cake to blow out the candles while my friends and parents sang for me in the background, I felt the monsoon wind that whooshes through New Delhi in July gather around me like an uninvited guest. It swooped down on the flame of the fifth candle, making that little stick of light wobble and then topple on my finger. The flame singed my skin and two drops of wax plopped on my hand. They gleamed like bubbles and then thickened like glue. I wondered how they hadn't made a single sound, how much they resembled teardrops, but hurt so much more. The two bubbles merged and left a scara circle that was browner than the rest of my skin.
But my mother said, flames didn't hurt fire girls. That anything was possible in a story. She said "in a story" twice.
And I believed her.
When I was six, the owner of a toy store invited me to sit on his lap and play with a Barbie while his fingers made deft circles on my flat chest, as if willing my breasts to sprout by magic. Barbie wore white panties and the man asked me firmly to show him if I was wearing white panties as well. I sat confused and didn't do anything, but I remember asking for my mother. The man said, "If you want to keep playing, let me see your panties." Fearing punishment, I let him. I didn't understand why his dry, bony finger kept going in and out of me or why his nail kept rubbing something that I didn't know I possessed.
At the time of her birth, the fire girl was named Krishnaa, the dark one. But all her life and even later when she became a character in a book, everyone called her Draupadi, meaning the daughter of Drupad, the king of Panchala. At the time of her birth, a voice had cried out from the sky. It had proclaimed that Draupadi would cause a devastating war that would change the course of history. And she did. She hurt a man's ego and there was war.
In spite of her notoriety, no one ever called her "the dark one." They only called her Draupadi, the name she acquired through her association to her father. But King Drupad wasn't a fire child. His birth was just normal, non-spectacular and insignificant like the rest of us.
One afternoon, when I was eleven, while walking back from school, I saw a car crawl in close to me. The man inside was driving it very slowly, as if the car was a fragile and vulnerable keepsake, as if one quick brake could shatter it into smithereens. Suddenly, I felt a sting on my right hip. It was a pinch from that man in the car. I was so surprised that I spun around to take a good look at him. He laughed out loud. I remember staring at his fleshy gums and gapped teeth, all of it stained the tawny color of tobacco. His hand was inches away from where he had touched me. A sinuous silver bracelet was coiled to his wrist, and before I could react, he smacked the same spot again, a tight slap I can still hear, and drove away. This time, the car rushed past me, as if it couldn't wait to reach its next destination.
The same year, three friends and I spotted an odd man leaning in on one of the four gates of our girls-only school. We had been sitting and eating at our usual spot, a cemented bench that circled the base of a giant tree that was always thick with dark green leaves, no matter the season. About two thousand girls were scattered all over our campus, eating the same kind of lunch, which is why this relatively secluded tree had been our special spot for the last two years.
I think all of us noticed the man at the same time. Maybe it was his thick mustache. Or the way his contorted face was slick with sweat. Or maybe it was his panting. Or the way his hands went up and down. Why was he stroking his "thing?" Why was he calling out to us? Why would we want to touch "it?" We ran away. Didn't he know we were not supposed to talk to strangers? The next day, we told our class teacher about him. Almost immediately, a guard was appointed to stroll the grounds and keep an eye out for possible miscreants. We were told to stay away from our tree-bench and congregate in one of the more crowded places on campus. As if it had somehow been the tree's fault. Or ours.
By an accident of fate, Draupadi became the wife of not one, but five men.
All of them brothers.
All of them princes.
All of them married to her at the same time, and all of them with equal conjugal rights.
Yet all of them stood mute and helpless when Yudhishthir, the oldest and ironically the most just of the five brothers, gambled her away in a game of dice. To celebrate, her new owner grabbed her by the hair and dragged her to a packed assembly, where he intended to humiliate her. He reasoned that now that she was a slave and not a queen, he could do as he pleased.
"But why? How?" I asked my mother. "He was not special. He wasn't a fire child."
"But he was still a prince."
This time I didn't believe her.
October, 1994. My parents, my younger brother and I are on a bus that is taking us from New Delhi to Dharamsala, a Himalayan town that also doubles as the capital of the Tibetan government-in-exile. We are on a holiday, but for the hundreds of Tibetans who flock to Dharamsala every month, life is too hard to be fun. They come here to pray to the Dalai Lama or to live here away from Chinese occupation of their homeland, preferring the status of "refugee" to the stigma of colonization. Our bus travels on skinny, snaking roads that have soaring cliffs on one side and deep valleys on the other. We pass rows and rows of prayer flags, the sets of five colorsblue, white, red, green, yellowfluttering in the air, representing space, air, fire, water and earth.
We are the only Hindu-Indian family on the bus, the rest are all Tibetans. They sing, exchange stories, and share homemade foods with each other. They smile at us every now and then, but mostly keep to themselves. Hours after the sun has set, the bus stops at a roadside dhaaba for bathroom breaks and dinner. We huddle on wooden benches to devour buttery paranthas stuffed with mashed potatoes and drink glass after glass of milky tea spiced with ginger and cardamom that scalds our tongues. The icy Himalayan wind chills us to the bone, but the food in our bellies warms us up as we rush back to the cocoon of warmth in the bus.
Close to midnight, I am stretched out on my adjustable seat asleep. I feel a butterfly on my neck. It flits lightly across my skin like a tantalizing shadow. I blink thinking that I am dreaming of yellow butterflies fluttering all over a peaceful-blue Himalayan sky. Almost immediately I realize that it's a hand. I narrow my eyes to focus on my little brother sleeping in the seat next to mine. Is it his hand? Did he wake me up for a drink from the bottle shoved into my backpack? No, this hand is bigger. It belongs to the Tibetan man sitting behind me.
I turn around to look at him. I can only see his eyes. They look like shiny beetles that are smiling at me in the dark. I consider waking up my parents, but I don't. What if my allegation backfires and the four of us are shoved off the bus and left in a crevasse to find our way back to civilization? So I yank a lever and put my seat in an upright position. This way the hand cannot reach me. I tighten the hood of my sweatshirt. I cover myself completely with my blanket. I spend the night with my back jutting out like a cliff and only my nose showing. By the time the sun rises outside my window, I am covered in sweat, but my nose feels like an ice cube.
July, 1997. For my seventeenth birthday, my parents decide to buy me a new pair of glasses. I will be going to college soon, so my new glasses have to be fancy and smart, but first, I have to get my eyes checked. Our ophthalmologist is someone we have been going to since I was eight. He knows all of us by name. We know he is the same age as my father, that his wife is a school teacher, and that they have two children.
The morning of the appointment, I tell my parents, "I can go to the doctor myself. This time you don't have to accompany me." They disagree. They still don't think I am capable enough or that I can take care of myself. I beg, I plead. Finally, they agree.
"Don't mess up," my mother sounds a warning.
I shrug, impatient as I am to get out of the house, escape her overprotective hold and be the adult I am desperate to be.
Inside the chamber, the ophthalmologist asks, "Where are your parents?"
I tell him that they are home. I add with a laugh that they finally gave me permission to travel this short distance on my own and that once he checks my eyesight, I will spend an hour at the bookstore next door and then go back.
The ophthalmologist smiles.
He beckons me to sit down and then while looking into my eyes with his many instruments, he reaches out and caresses my face, tucks my errant hair behind my ears, and rubs my shoulders. I purse my mouth and look away.
Once I leave his office, I walk straight past the bookstore. I go back home, my eyes parchment dry and my secret buried somewhere deep inside.
I don't tell my mother that I have messed up.
Although the book didn't say so, I always imagined that Draupadi loved peppercorns, their latent heat concealed under the layers of their fat, wrinkled skin. I also imagined that she loved the color indigo, and wore it everywhere and as often as possible. Even on her wedding day, when other brides wear red and gold and maroon and orange. Indigo may have been an odd choice for her skin tone, but I imagined that somehow it brought out the fire of her soot-colored hair.
The year I turn twenty, on my way back home from a weekly book bazaar, five men threaten to rape me on a moving bus. Initially, they make me believe that aside from the driver and the conductor, the three men on the bus are all passengers, just like me. But I learn they are friends when one of them gets up to shut the door, the conductor leaves his designated seat to come and sit with them, the bus immediately picks up speed and they begin to openly discuss their evening plans all of which involve me, the meat of the day. They call me that. In Hindi and using the crudest words. The meat.
From my point of view, a shattered or dissected leg looks like a small price to pay compared to what they are planning for me. So I jump from the moving bus right to the middle of the road. A car screeches loudly as it slams its brakes and honks, it's driver's face a red smear of rage. I don't care, I don't apologize, I run all the way home, saved by a combination of foolishness and daredevilry.
Bit by bit, I tell my parents the entire story. My father sits with his head in his hands all night. My mother weeps with relief. "You are safe," she says, again and again, like the recurrent bell on an alarm clock.
No one knows for sure how old Draupadi was at the time of her death. While she lived, she birthed five sons, but they were all murdered in their sleep in a single night. Each of Draupadi's five husbands took multiple wives. And she made the prophecy come true. She hurt a single man's ego and "caused" the Kurukshetra War, the most terrible carnage Hindu religion and mythology had ever seen. When the War began, each army had over a hundred thousand warriors. Eighteen days later, only twelve remained.
But she also punished the man who tried to disrobe her inside a crowded assembly hall. She had his chest ripped open by Bheema, the second of the five brothers and the husband who loved her the most and then she washed her soot-colored hair in the blood that gushed from the wound.
When their final hour approached, the gods instructed Draupadi and her five husbands to climb the Himalayas. They were on their way to heaven, but because she was the weakest, Draupadi couldn't keep up and fell. None of her husbands stayed back for her. Or with her. They kept walking. Clearly, the threshold to heaven demanded severe sacrifices.
Could it be that Draupadi's husbands were afraid of her? Is that why they abandoned her during their ascent to heaven?
My mother said, "Yes."
This time I believed her.
And I wished that I too was a fire girl with indigo clothes and hair the color of soot instead of an ordinary girl in love with imagination.