by Rashi Rohatgi
My daughter was almost three when I decided to observe the ashtmi fast. It was the first year I’d had a meal to skip: otherwise, late autumn saw me in the kitchen, haphazardly throwing beans and veg into a pan, slow-roasting so that the oven would help stave off the arctic chill. I didn’t live in a MetLife ad – I’d never needed to FaceTime my mother for spice reassurance – so unless Amavasya was there with me, I cooked alone. This year she was with my husband. (Did he ever cook? Yes, more than half the time. But husbands, not just my gora babu, have always been incidental to Hindu fasting.) I had decamped for the Mediterranean hills, whereupon I would, we’d discussed, return home to a daughter who understood her mother to be a person, separate and inviolable. Not a tap. So a small sacrifice – in thanks, in recompense – seemed fitting.
It was too early in the month, but then, who was there to challenge me, the girl with the blue wedding invitations, from honoring her daughter on the dark night she’d chosen to reappropriate as her daughter’s name? Each day that week, the hotel staff had laid out for us aspirants a feast that reminded me of nothing so much as my mother’s table: plentiful, well-made, not to my taste. I drank my tea at breakfast – Hindus are soft-core, you understand – and found to my surprise that I could feel my skin pulling away from me. I was fasting, technically, but so far I was only a banana and a bowl of porridge down. Once the top layer had sloughed itself off, writhing like a nautanki, I wondered whether to toss my skin in the compost bin or wrap it up to carry it home with me. I crushed it into my tote bag and went to commune.
The morning felt quotidian. I scribbled notes to myself, trying to capture what meaning I could hear around me. It felt, to be honest, like home: not where Amavasya and I wind ourselves together and mutter to ourselves in a language no one else can understand, but the genuine article. By lunch there was a straightness to my back I hadn’t made use of since conception. As a girl, I’d been a champion faster, or, as I’d covered my tracks, in training. Just inside the studio door where I’d assumed the mantle of Miss Swapna was a garbage can filled, and then, I assumed, periodically emptied of sandwiches my mother filled for me, eggplant and peppers and tomatoes and other nightshades that would rot in the trash far away from any children starving in oft-brought up slums of my ancestral home. Though I knew the furthest a brown body would get to principal was principal of a provincial ballet academy, I wanted to fail ready.
The skin underneath my cast off epidermis was hot to the touch. I thought to myself, Amavasya has a fever, and then corrected myself. The auras of those who had also paid to inhabit the mountaintop expanded to fill the available space, so I slipped on my shoes and descended. At sea level, I slipped amongst the crowds and watched, as is part and parcel of the rite, youths eat sweets, throw themselves with abandon into the waves. As I teen I’d swam until my skin turned purple, too dark to be seen at night, and climbed up onto my roof in my leotard, practicing camouflage, but for the pink satin encasing my toes, slithering up my ankles. At home, up north, my daughter found me without opening her eyes, casting her arms about for my hair strewn across the pillow, pulling herself in with it, nose to breast. When I got back, I told the youths, I’d promised these breasts to the waves as jetsam. I flung myself about, spun as fast as I had before letting my head fall from the stage, fulfilling the vow I had made to myself then: this is what it will feel like, to be free. When I heard my own voice, saying my own words, I realized that the ashtmi fast was never a sacrifice. It was a test.
What is belief in karma but a belief in a panoply of second chances? I dragged my milk-filled body up the mountain, ready to commit to the reshaping we had promised ourselves, each one smoothing the others’ chatter marks, celebrating the others’ light. When I unlocked my hotel room I realized I’d thrown the bag with my skin inside of it into the sea, with nothing to show for my offering to Varuna. Nothing imminent, at any rate. When I returned home I pleaded with him: O God of the West, I have given you my daughter. Just let me have another skin. But it soon became clear I did not need one. Amavasya was happy enough to drink from this raw and bruising malai. It was only ever I who needed to be other than myself.
Rashi Rohatgi‘s fiction has appeared in The Misty Review and Boston Accent Lit, and her poetry in Allegro, Anima, and Lunar Poetry. She lives in arctic Norway.