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from the September 2016 issue

Barbie

Milanese journalist Gabriella Kuruvilla touches on the dynamics of motherhood and assimilation.

I did it again today. I woke up, made breakfast, watched them eat and drink, bathed and dressed them, took them to school, returned home, got my sari, sandals, lipstick, kohl, makeup remover, rings, bangles, wrap, and Barbie. I put it all in my bag and went out.

I always choose a different café on the long route from Lambrate to Bovisa. I prefer to walk, despite the time it takes. I’m not in a hurry. Three forty-five comes slowly, it’s only ten.

I plant my heels on the ground, in the store windows eyeing my silhouette wrapped in my jeans and tank top. I look at myself askance, with feigned indifference. I wear my forty-eight years well, despite having had twins. They told me it was risky: you’re not the right age, you’re too old. I felt young, and I wanted to give him a child. One was enough, I just wanted one.

I got Ashima and Sandip, who soon will become Paola and Luigi. I filed an application at the court to change their names, so as not to complicate their lives. People won’t make fun of them, they won’t feel different or wrong. Just normal, assimilated. I’m the one who goes by Patmini, exotic as incense. Even though my name is Mina, explosive as a land mine.

Bar Accone, like a circus—how appropriate. It looks like the best place to get into costume. I order a cappuccino and a croissant. I don’t drink or eat in front of Ashima and Sandip. It’s as if I’m drinking their milk and eating their cookies as I watch them take in liquids and solids. And as if I were drinking and eating, it’s as if I am in their place. They’re beautiful and happy. They are a pair. I’m beautiful and sad. I’m alone, without them. When they’re not around, I let out my anger. So I can resume the role of the reliable, easygoing, available, and affectionate mom, as soon as they’re back with me. She mustn’t cause them any harm, mama Mina.

I pay and ask: “Where’s the bathroom?”

“In the back, on the left,” replies a girl so absorbed in herself that I feel like I can do anything I want.

I’ll have to come back to this place, make an exception. I always choose a different café on the long route from Lambrate to Bovisa. The exception proves the rule.

I lock myself in the bathroom. I remove my tank top, jeans, and heels. I put on my sari, sandals, and twist my hair into a braid. I use the lipstick to paint on a bindi. I line my eyes with kohl. I hang two giant rings on my ears and a smaller one on my nose. I put a dozen bangles on each wrist. At the slightest move I jingle like a crystal chandelier hit by a burst of air. I put the wrap around me and put the Barbie inside. Like a little baby. I wave to the barista, who looks up and says, “Have a nice day.” She looks at me but does not see.

I’ll have to come back to this place, make an exception. The exception proves the rule. We all need rules, and to be regulated.

I stop by the traffic light at the first intersection. And I do as it does: at red I stand there silent, at yellow I wait, at green I shake and yell: “Whore of a doll!”

And again: red, yellow, green: “Whore of a doll!”

Sometimes I shake and yell more, sometimes I shake and yell less. Sometimes I get bored, or worse, distracted. Sometimes I find myself yelling and shaking at red, and things like that that shouldn’t happen. We all need limits, and to be limited.

People walk by, stare at me, pretend not to notice, or shake their head slightly. Some laugh. Some push me. Some spit on me. I, at red, stand there silent. At yellow I wait. At green I shake and yell: “Whore of a doll!”

At two-fifteen I head toward home, I don’t want to get to school late. I know what it’s like to wait for someone and never see them come. Lateness is the antechamber of abandonment.

The first time he went to India, he was eighteen. He had been deemed a mature student. He threw a rucksack over his shoulder and sneakers on his feet. It was 1968. He wasn’t seeking social revolution but individual change. He wanted to get lost and find himself: a suggestive sentence, whatever it means. He set off with a guide and a map: if someone wants to get lost and find himself, he’d better bring along a guide and a map. Go off the beaten path, sure, but without going overboard. We all need rules, limits, and landmarks: I have the traffic light, he had the guide and map. Plus, he’d been deemed mature. Of age. Someone capable of voting left, screwing every girl in sight, and setting off by himself. He was for social sex and individual travel.

With his rucksack, sneakers, guide, and map, he’d lost and found himself in Bombay. Surrounded by traffic, dilapidation, noise, flies, smells, and beggars. Everything thrilled him. He lavished money and smiles, trying to absorb poverty and love: extracts of local spirituality. He took public transport, slept in cheap hotels, ate at working-class diners. Consulting his guide and map. With his rucksack over his shoulder and sneakers on his feet.

He went back to Milan in September, via hitchhiking-bus-train, enduring heat and hunger, giving up his intercontinental flight with air conditioning and international cuisine. He enrolled in architecture at the university: he went to class, attended protests, listened to professors, participated in debates, took exams, and organized sit-ins with the same enthusiasm and satisfaction. He was a model student and militant. Brilliant. Always up in front. And every year during vacation, summer and winter, he went to India. To be Indian, part-time. When he got back home, to his parents’ luxury apartment, he resumed his studies and his politics, each time feeling cleansed and refreshed, body and mind.

He became a famous designer, with a mystical air and solid plans. He was fifty years old, ten more than me, when I met him. He called me Kali, like the goddess of destruction, also the wife of Shiva.

“My name is Mina, not so exotic but just as explosive. I go by Patmini, not so explosive but just as exotic,” I explained to him.

He was fascinated with India: I represented its Italian branch, easily accessible. No intercontinental trips, air conditioning, or international cuisine. He just had to hop in a taxi, not a rickshaw, and plunge into Milan traffic: hardly less chaotic than Bombay’s. He only had to go down to Via Conte Rosso, and climb up four flights of dilapidation, noises, flies, smells, and beggars. And reach me: in my forty-square-meter courtyard apartment, with a loft. The bed above and kitchen below, and next to the only door which also served as a window was my loom, where I wove fabrics with the colors and patterns of India. I designed textiles for clothing and home decor, which were sold in the most exclusive textile boutique in the city, with the label Made in India. Designed in Italy isn’t chic enough, apparently.

We first met at a bar in the canal district, at aperitif hour. While his eyes were glued to my tank top, my jeans, and my heels, mine were glued to my cocktail, trying to drown in alcohol the chatter of the owner of the most exclusive textile boutique in the city.

“We’ll say your fabrics were produced by orphan girls from Madras,” she stated.

“‘Produced by orphan girls from Madras’ is more chic than ‘designed by an artisan from Milan,’” she explained.

I drank and I drowned. He saved me when I went up to the bar to ask for another gin and tonic.

“Can I get that for you?” he asked me.

I replied, “Sure,” lost in thought.

“Can I ask your name?”

I replied, “Sure,” lost in thought.

“So, what’s your name?”

I replied, “Patmini,” lost in thought.

“Like the incense?” he asked me.

“It’s more chic than Mina,” I replied.

I looked in his eyes, and my mind drowned in his body. He looked like a boy even though he was an adult. He smiled like an adolescent and observed me like an old man. The owner of the most exclusive textile boutique in the city stood up, walked over to us, and left: “I’m expecting the new collection by the end of the month,” she proclaimed.

“What collection?” the old adolescent asked.

“The one produced by orphan girls from Madras, made by an artisan from Milan,” I replied.

He told me about his love for India. I told him I was Indian but I wasn’t anymore. He didn’t understand me.

We kissed in his jeep and fucked in his loft. I had the adolescent senior, who managed to keep me on the edge of orgasm for over two hours, smiling at me with lightness and observing me with intensity. He had his Italian branch of India. He wanted to add more branches, thus Ashima and Sandip were born.

“Let’s call them Paola and Luigi,” I told him.

“Absolutely not. We’ll call them Ashima and Sandip,” he replied.

Ashima and Sandip are their names now, until the court processes my application and they become Paola and Luigi.

I transformed the forty-square-meter courtyard loft apartment into my workshop, where I created fabrics Made in India, produced by orphan girls from Madras, sold at mind-boggling prices in the most exclusive textile boutique in the city. And I moved into his big loft in Brera, where everything was visible: from the bricks in the wall down to the pieces of decor. The only nook where any privacy could be found was the bathroom. We threw drug-fueled parties and prepared dinners with organic ingredients. I snorted coke and consumed whole grains, wishing for a cigarette and a steak. But tobacco and meat weren’t chic.

I did everything he wanted, without asking myself if I wanted it too. I was always lost in thought, my mind lost in his body. Addicted to his old adolescent body that could keep me on the edge of orgasm for over two hours, smiling at me with lightness and observing me with intensity.

There was only one will, his. Following it was my way of loving him.

“I want a child,” he told me.

I got pregnant.

“There are two, a girl and a boy,” I whispered to him.

“A boy and a girl,” he retorted.

“How are we going to do this?” I asked him.

“Do what?” he asked me.

“Raise them?”

“We will,” he told me. “We will,” plural. He didn’t say: “You will,” singular.

I could follow on, then.

I imagined a nanny who was also a housekeeper: a woman completely at my disposal, 24/7. Always open like a supermarket, of whom you could ask anything: she’s for sale anyway, as long as you can pay. And we could pay for a nanny-housekeeper at my complete disposal, 24/7.

Whereas he told me: “Quit your job and be a mom,” completely at Ashima and Sandip’s disposal, 24/7. I was the nanny-housekeeper.

We propped a wicker double cradle at the foot of the coconut double bed. His body didn’t give mine pleasure, he didn’t smile at me and he didn’t observe me, and I wasn’t lost in thought anymore. And I didn’t know how and where to follow him.

Ashima and Sandip cried and pooped. We had to calm them and change them. The loft got messy and dirty. We had to tidy and clean it. But he didn’t comfort or change them, he didn’t tidy and he didn’t clean: he smoked ganja and thought up projects, closed up and protected in his quiet and spotless studio in Bovisa. I couldn’t follow him anymore, then. I had to take a different path.

And as I calmed and changed them, and as I tidied and cleaned, no longer following him, he was overtaken by a little American girl, white and blonde, barely twenty-four years old, a local branch of Barbie. And of her youth. Whore of a doll.

I calmed and changed them, tidied and cleaned. I went over to the big window and looked outside. I waited to see him coming back. He used to come at five, then he would come at six, then at seven, then at eight. And then he came at nine: “I ran late,” he apologized.

Ashima and Sandip were sleeping, he ate dinner with me, without smiling at me or observing me.

“I’m in love with someone else,” he said to me.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“An intern, you don’t know her.”

“How old is she?”

“Just twenty-four.”

“Is she Indian?”

He burst out laughing.

“Is she Indian?”

“She’s American, white and blonde.”

He wasn’t laughing anymore.

At ten I put on my sari, sandals, and twist my hair into a braid. I used the lipstick to paint on a bindi. I lined my eyes with kohl. I hung two giant rings on my ears and a smaller one on my nose. I put a dozen bangles on each wrist. At the slightest move I jingled like a crystal chandelier hit by a burst of air. I put the wrap around me and put the Barbie inside. Like a baby.

“You love me,” I told him. “She,” I pulled the Barbie out of the sash, pulling her up by the neck, “she could be our daughter.”

“I love her,” he told me, smiling at the Barbie with lightness and observing her with intensity.

I shook and I yelled: “Whore of a doll!”

He took a sip of wine, replaced the glass on the table, wiped his mouth with the napkin, stood up and left. I went over to the big window and looked outside.

I waited to see him coming. He wasn’t late. He had abandoned us.

I celebrated their first birthday alone, and I made them two little cakes: one with a pink candle and the name “Paola,” one with a blue candle and the name “Luigi.” I lit myself a cigarette and cooked myself a steak. The next day I came back with Ashima and Sandip to my forty-square-meter courtyard loft apartment. I carried up the loom and brought down the mattress, where all three of us sleep now.

Every month he, the old adolescent, deposits five thousand euros into my account. Which isn’t so I can afford to shake and yell: “Whore of a doll!” It’s so I can afford not to work and to move somewhere else, and hire a nanny-housekeeper at my complete disposal, 24/7. But I want to be a mom, live in this house, and work on my loom.

I want to shake and scream: “Whore of a doll!”

At two-fifteen I head toward home, I don’t want to get to the school late. I know what it’s like to wait for someone and not see them come. Lateness is the antechamber of abandonment.

I go into a café, another one. I order a gin and tonic, I drain it in one gulp. The bartender looks at me askance, with feigned indifference. I shouldn’t come to this place again.

I pay and ask: “Where’s the bathroom?”

“It’s out of order.”

Panic. I shake and yell: “Whore of a doll!”

The bartender comes out from behind the bar, comes up to me, and throws me out. I’m next to a traffic light once again.

At red, I’m motionless and silent. At yellow, I wait. At green, I shake and scream: “Whore of a doll!” But I’m lost in thought. I hear police sirens. The car screeches to a halt in front of me, a man and a woman get out and load me into the back. They look at me in the rearview mirror, askance, with feigned indifference.

They take me to the police station, dressed in my costume.

“ID, please.”

I set my ID card on the table. Surname: Lahiri. Name: Mina. Date of birth: 08/03/1960. Place of birth: Milan. Nationality: Italian. Place of residence: Milan. Address: Conte Rosso, 7. Marital status: single. Occupation: Artisan. Height: 1.72 m. Hair color: black. Eye color: green.

The man looks at me askance, with feigned indifference.

“You’re an Italian citizen.” It’s a statement, but has the tone of a question.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Can you tell me what time it is?” I ask.

“Three-twenty,” he replies.

Panic. I stand up. “I have to go.”

“Go ahead,” he says to me, standing up too, pointing me to the exit.

“Where’s the bathroom?” I ask.

“In the back, to the left,” he replies.

I go in, undo my braid, remove the bindi and kohl, slide off the rings, bangles, sari, and sandals, and put on my tank top, jeans, and heels. I put the wrap and the Barbie in my bag: “Bye, little one, till tomorrow.” I wave to the commissioner. “Ciao, Mina,” he says.

I rush, I’m late. I get to the school right before it closes. Ashima and Sandip are sitting on the ground with the teacher. Legs crossed and heads hung.

“Ashima . . . Sandip . . .” I gasp.

They run over, hug me, one on the right and the other on the left.

“Did you bring my Barbie?” Ashima asks me.

“Of course, love, here it is,” I reply, pulling it out of my bag.

“And my elephant?” Sandip asks me.

“No, honey, I didn’t have time to stop at home . . .”

He starts to cry, in a fit that could go on forever.

“My elephant! My elephant! My elephant!” he shouts between sobs.

“We’re going to get him right now, calm down, little one.”

“Why didn’t you bring my elephant?”

“Because I didn’t have time to stop at home . . .” I explain.

He grabs the Barbie from Ashima and hurls it far away.

“Whore of a doll!” I think.

 

From È la vita, dolcezza. © 2008 Gabriella Kuruvilla. By arrangement with the author and Morellini Editore. Translation © Jamie Richards. All rights reserved.

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